The Pittsburgh Steelers are acknowledging the future.
Due to injury and lack of production, all signs are pointing to the activation of defensive lineman Dan McCullers and wide receiver Martavis Bryant for the first time this season. A shoulder injury to starting nose tackle Steve McLendon will likely push Cam Thomas from defensive end to nose, which will boost rookie Stephon Tuitt into a more prominent role. Considering Brett Keisel missed practice Friday, it's possible Tuitt even starts this game.
A breakdown of Steelers DE Stephon Tuitt before the season.
Rookie Ryan Shazier may make his first appearance since injuring his knee in a Week 3 win over the Carolina Panthers. Running back Dri Archer is expected to be activated as well, meaning the Steelers' first four draft picks, and five rookies overall, could have helmets Monday when the Steelers take on the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football.
It's a sign of things to come. It's also a sign of how it got to this point. Tuitt is, snap for snap, beginning to make it clear Thomas's time at defensive end is coming to a conclusion. McLendon's injury may have accelerated that timetable, but Tuitt likely would have surpassed Thomas sooner rather than later anyway.
McCullers, a fan favorite, has reportedly practiced well and, while injuries may be the reason the 6-foot-7, 352-pound defensive end and nose tackle is getting on the field, he has the opportunity to show in practice this week he's someone they can count on in the future as well.
A look at Dan McCullers from before the season.
That's the key thing. It's no longer about measurements or 40-times. It's about preparing to play an NFL game. Contrary to popular opinion, McCullers' size alone doesn't give him the ability to dominate the player across from him. Martavis Bryant isn't magnetically charged to the football. Positioning, technique and leverage are essential, and those traits are best enhanced Monday through Saturday, not on Sunday (or Monday in this case).
How these players practice this week, and how they've been practicing, are key indicators they're ready to step on the field and be contributors to team success. That goes for Shazier, Archer and Tuitt as well, players who have been going through game-week practice in preparation of being on the field come game day.
For these rookies, just showing up won't make them better. While it's time to see if the several weeks of training they've had will result in anything on a play-for-play basis, it's up to them and how they go through the next few practices before Monday's game to determine how effective they might be.