The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted king-size nose tackle Daniel McCullers in 2014 knowing the gentle giant would take some time to groom for the NFL. That's why, despite tipping the college scales at north of 360 pounds and standing a towering 6'-7" tall, the man who could best be described as "moderately titanic" was drafted in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL draft and saw very little playing time in his first two years.
Entering 2016, it looked like the weight of the world was going to crash down on "Big Dan" whether he was ready or not.
After letting former starting nose tackle Steve McLendon leave to the proverbial greener pastures as a free agent, the team's decision was clear: McCullers would be depended on...
...until the 2016 NFL Draft, when they selected small-school beast Javon Hargrave in the third round. After an exceptionally good showing in training camp and pre-season, Hargrave was named the Steelers' starting nose tackle, having leaped past McCullers on the depth chart to become the team's first starting rookie defensive lineman in more than 20 years. Depending on your perspective, it was either a reprieve for a still-somewhat-raw McCullers, or an indictment of his slow progress.
Now, Steelers fans are waiting with bated breath to see whether the injury suffered by Hargrave in practice on Monday is significant. Regardless, though, we can all breathe a small sigh of relief: McCullers has come a long way since last year.
First, let's take a look at where he was in week four of the preseason in 2015.
In this play, McCullers fails to stay square to his blocker after the initial impact. He gets off the line slower than the center, who is able to initiate contact first. McCullers actually gets good hand placement inside the center's frame, but as he starts to flow down the line, the center stays square and begins to drive straight ahead with his second push. His mistake was not using his arms to press the center away from his body as he began to turn to his left. That exposes his right side while the center is still in direct contact, giving him a free shot at knocking McCullers off balance. Because his base was rotated, McCullers was unable to generate the necessary leverage to hold his ground, and ended up getting pushed backward four yards.
By pure dumb luck, he was still able to be a part of the tackle. Had he been able to hold his ground, though, he may have had a shot at a backside tackle near the line of scrimmage.
Fast forward to 2016, and things look very, very different.
Watching this play at full speed in week two of the 2016 pre-season, versus the Philadelphia Eagles, the first thing you would have noticed is McCullers apparently went back to school and got his B.A. in Nastiness. This is a vastly different, much more aggressive player.
Much quicker off the snap, McCullers is the one initiating the contact. He does so while the center is still lifting his head. The bottom line is the center didn't know what hit him until reviewing this play in the Eagles' film room a few days later.
As the play goes on, McCullers uses his massive wingspan to his advantage, repeatedly pressing the center away from him, then taking a step to eat up the space he just created. As a result, the center isn't walked backward as much as he is launched backward. He repeatedly hops, just to keep his feet under him rather than getting completely bowled over, and loses about a yard at a time in the process. McCullers walks him back, almost into quarterback Sam Bradford's lap, and gives the center one final, massive shove to try knocking the quarterback off balance as he throws. All throughout the play, McCullers keeps his head up and his eyes on the quarterback at all times. In the past, this has been one of his biggest failures, as he would often dominate his man, but would run himself out of the play because he had his head down while driving.
Finally, let's look at Thursday's pre-season finale against the Carolina Panthers to see a wrinkle that highlights how aggressive "Shade Tree" has become.
The first thing you notice here is that McCullers is lined up as a defensive tackle in a four-man front rather than as a true nose tackle. This is a usage of McCullers I've wanted to see, and he doesn't disappoint.
Initially lined up over the right tackle, he works inside to the guard. Rather than square up, he uses his surprising speed and burst off the snap to first get to the guard, and the to drive a shoulder into his chest. This knocks the guard off-balance and allows McCullers to switch to a simple bull rush. Again, because his eyes are on the play, he is able to see the quarterback attempting to escape the pocket, and takes a swipe at him. This forces the quarterback to duck, allowing a pursuing Arthur Moats to get the sack from the back side.
Hargrave has earned the starting nod by proving his stellar college film is more a result of his own ability rather than the lesser competition he faced by coming out of a small school, and current reports are that his injury isn't serious. If it does turn out that he will miss time, though, rest assured the Dan McCullers who would take his place is not the Dan McCullers of 2015. He's a newer, nastier model who can more than hold his own.