The Pittsburgh Steelers are returning almost every starter from their 2019 defense. Leading the NFL in both takeaways and sacks, the Steelers defense made great strides last season and is looking to improve even more in 2020. The only major loss from the defense was nose tackle Javon Hargrave who left to join the Philadelphia Eagles.
One of the many questions facing the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason has been what the plan will be at nose tackle for 2020. The Steelers did make a trade with the Baltimore Ravens for defensive tackle Chris Wormley, but it is unclear if Wormley was meant to be a replacement at nose tackle or provide depth at the other positions on the defensive line. The Steelers also added a player in the 2020 NFL draft in Carlos Davis, but it wasn’t until the the seventh round. In fact, many have been speculating as to what the plan is for the Steelers at nose tackle for the 2020 season.
In a teleconference phone call over the weekend with Pittsburgh media, Steelers’ Head Coach Mike Tomlin was asked specifically about the nose tackle position.
“There’s no question that we have some candidates,” Tomlin stated. “Obviously, that’s a position that was manned by Javon for a number of years. Last year, he was backed up by Dan McCullers— he’s still on the roster. We’ve added some young men. In this process, we have some veteran guys that are nose capable like Tyson Alualu. So we’re comfortable with the men that we have to work with.”
Before Tomlin was finished answering the question, there were already several things to unwrap. First, specifically saying Tyson Alualu is able to play the position if needed may give the biggest indication of the Steelers’ plans to begin preparation for the season. In 2019, four of the Steelers’ defensive linemen were ranked in the top 11 in the league according to Pro Football Focus. So even after the loss of Javon Hargrave, the Steelers still have three players— Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu— who could man the three positions on the defensive line at the same time. Getting the best players on the field is key, so if Alualu is an option it would be wise to use him in this role as long as he continues to produce.
Coach Tomlin also discussed other players they currently have the roster who could fill this role. Although not mentioned by name, both Chris Wormley and second-year player Isaiah Buggs are players who would fit the description. Additionally, Tomlin did specifically mention Daniel McCullers as being the back-up nose tackle in 2019. But as Tomlin continued to answer the question, it seems a player such as McCullers would not necessarily fit the mold of what the Steelers are hoping to get out of the position.
“We’ll sort those guys out and allow those guys to establish themselves within the position,” Tomlin continued. “We’re not opposed to adding to that position if we come across a capable man between now and then. We’re comfortable with where we are. The big thing is, like what Javon displayed, it’s best when you have a nose that is versatile in today’s game. It’s just not a lot of opportunity for those guys to have impact if they’re nose only.”
Even though he is technically the “next man up,“ Coach Tomlin‘s explanation of the needed versatility of a nose tackle does not give much of a ringing endorsement for McCullers. With Javon Hargrave being a player who could play node yet also play defensive tackle, the Steelers have several players on the roster who seem to fit in this category. If this is the route they are taking, is this finally the year where Daniel McCullers is the odd man out?
Coach Tomlin went on to reiterate some of his earlier points about versatility at the nose tackle position.
“That’s what added value to Javon‘s portfolio and his performance and career with us. He was also a capable sub package rusher. You’ve got to be versatile. We have some candidates. Within those candidates are guys that are capable of doing other things because that’s just the nature of the position in today’s game.”
So while Coach Tomlin is still open to adding the right player to the Steelers roster to fill out the nose tackle position, his continued statement about versatility goes to show how the Steelers have transitioned in their thinking when it comes to the middle of the defensive line. With the nose tackle being utilized only around 30% of the time on defense, it is of much more benefit if the player who takes those snaps is also able to play at other places along the defensive line.
So should the Steelers initial plan and nose tackle be Tyson Alualu after his solid 2019 season? Should the Steelers go with the true nose tackle Daniel McCullers? Or will the Steelers use a combination of players depending on their opponent to exploit the best matchup possible on the inside? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.