By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report Writer, special to the Point of Pittsburgh
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Since the release and retirement of Steelers defensive tackle Casey Hampton, the Steelers have struggled to find a real identity in the middle of their defensive line. Steve McLendon performed admirably during his stint as the Steelers’ starter but failed to live up to the expectations set by “Big Snack”, leading to the Steelers allowing him to walk during free agency this offseason. In 2014, the Steelers selected Daniel McCullers, the behemoth defensive tackle from Tennessee, in the 6th round. While physically imposing, McCullers’s play has never really amounted to much, which is a main reason why the Steelers used their 3rd round pick on South Carolina State defensive tackle Javon Hargrave. Both McCullers and Hargrave bring different skills to the table but which will ultimately be the Steelers starter at defensive tackle?
Daniel McCullers Analysis
When the Steelers drafted McCullers in 2014, he stood an amazing 6’7″ and tipped the scales at 352 lbs., making him the heaviest player on the Steelers roster at that time. Most fans thought the pick made tons of sense: you can’t teach a player that size, we need a nose tackle, we need to resurrect the 3-4 defense, we hate the Bengals and Ravens, etc. But so far entering his 3rd season, McCullers has done little to validate deserving extensive reps on the starting defense. When McLendon left during free agency, many people expected McCullers to be the starting defensive tackle, at least until Hargrave was ready to take over. As I previously mentioned, McCullers’s game is much different than that of Hargrave. McCullers is a huge man who is primarily a space eater. His athleticism is lacking from what you would expect from a defensive lineman and his only real skillset is to be a 0-technique nose tackle (head up against the center) in the Steelers 3-4 defensive packages, which is something the team has moved away from in recent years. Throughout training camp, however, the Steelers have been using him in their nickel packages as well, playing him as a 1-technique nose tackle (the shoulder of the center) or a 2i-technique defensive tackle (the inside shoulder of the guard).
Through training camp and the first preseason game, McCullers’s play has been largely inconsistent, a knock on his performance through the first two years of his career. To help with this consistency and stamina, McCullers lost weight in the offseason to help stay in better shape and improve his mobility. Apparently his stamina has improved, considering the fact that he played approximately 40 snaps against the Lions, which is the most snaps he has played in a single game as a Steeler in both the preseason, regular season, or post season. Even with his reshaped body, his urgency on the field left little to be desired, as does his average pad level. The hardest thing for players of his stature to do is stay low off the ball and even when he is 12 lbs. lighter, it appears that McCullers still struggles with this aspect of his game.
It wasn’t all bad, though. On passing downs, McCullers showed how his size could be a huge asset. At times, he was able to manhandle and bullrush offensive lineman straight into the backfield, putting a huge dent into the pocket and forcing the quarterback to adjust on the fly. This was few and far between, however, as his poor footwork and limited mobility prevented him from performing any other effective moves other than a simple bullrush. Hopefully as camp continues, the Steelers can continue to see something out of the former Volunteer.
Javon Hargrave Analysis
Throughout the draft process this year, most people pegged the Steelers to take a defensive lineman at some point early on in the draft. The Steelers did just that, snagging one of the best interior defensive linemen in college football. Javon Hargrave is not your traditional defensive lineman or college football player in general. The pride and joy of FCS South Carolina State, Hargrave was an absolute monster in college. The stout lineman showed extreme athleticism and power at the point of attack and was routinely making plays on the field. The largest concern for Hargrave was his level of competition.
At the Senior Bowl, Hargrave quickly put those concerns to rest when he had the chance to go head-to-head with some of the top offensive linemen in the country. Hargrave continued to show the quick first step and explosion that made him so dangerous while at South Carolina State.
At 6’2″, 305 lbs., Hargrave was the shortest defensive lineman on the Steelers roster before the team recently signed Pitt alum Khaynin Mosley-Smith as a free agent. His small but stocky stature is what makes him so exciting as a prospect. Physically, he compares to elite NFL tackles like Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins, which is extremely high praise. The Steelers would love to see that kind of production out of their 3rd-round pick. So far through training camp, that potential has been more than evident, as play after play he beats offensive linemen both athletically and physically when coming off the ball. On certain plays against the Lions, Hargrave would be exploding off the ball the instant it was snapped and would be the first defensive lineman to move in general. This shows his amazing level of awareness and his ability to use his athleticism to his advantage.
The primary issue with Hargrave is the fact that he isn’t built like a true 3-4 nose tackle. Much like Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins, his best usage will likely be as a 1-gap penetrator in a 2i- or 3-technique (the outside shoulder of the guard). This will allow him to engage in more one-on-one battles with guards and use his athleticism and strength to his advantage. Against the Lions, this was on display, as he won most of the one-on-one matchups that he was involved in. This is hard to gauge, though, considering the small sample size that we were able to see him perform, as the Steelers only had him on the field for approximately 15 snaps, which was among the lowest snap totals of any defensive lineman that played in the game. The team released DT Roy Philon earlier this week, which should free up some snaps for Hargrave to eat up. Fully expect him to make the most of those snaps.
Trying to compare McCullers and Hargrave is like trying to compare apples and oranges. Both have great skillsets at their disposal, but the biggest factor in which player will see more time will likely come down to who knows how to use their skills better. Realistically, it will be Hargrave that ends up seeing the field more throughout the season just based on the Steelers vocal confidence in him and how much they have invested in the stout defender. Add in the fact that Hargrave has 10 times the amount of potential, this should come as a no brainer to most fans.
However, it likely won’t be this cut and dry. Even though Hargrave’s snaps will increase as the preseason progresses, the Steelers seem to be surprisingly patient with McCullers and wanting to see what they have with him. Another factor that seems to be working into the equation is the solid performance by DL L.T. Walton against the Lions, who consistently pushed back the pocket in his snaps as a nickel defensive tackle. Hargrave and Walton would make for an athletic duo on the interior in nickel packages and would give the Steelers some options. If Hargrave proves to be the more valuable defensive tackle in Pittsburgh over McCullers, the Steelers might ultimately continue to abandon their “base” 3-4 defense in replace of their various subpackages, which would allow Hargrave to shine and really use his athleticism.