The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t have many question marks on defense heading into the 2020 season. While some are concerned about the depth at inside linebacker—which ought to benefit from the return of Ulysees Gilbert from a fractured vertebra—for most fans the single greatest area of concern is at nose tackle.
This begs the question: Do the Steelers have a true nose tackle on the roster? The answer is no, at least not in the traditional sense, unless you count Daniel McCullers.
McCullers is something akin to a traditional nose tackle, insofar that he’s big man (352 pounds), but at 6-7 he appears to have trouble playing with the leverage that one associates with a traditional nose tackle. Anyway, as a career backup, McCullers doesn’t play many snaps—or make many plays. Over the course of his six years in the league, McCullers has registered only 41 total tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Remembering Casey Hampton, aka ‘Big Snack’
Now Casey Hampton, he was a traditional nose tackle. Drafted in the first round in 2001 with the 19th overall pick, Hampton played for the Steelers for 12 years—and excelled at freeing up the Steelers’ linebackers to make plays.
When the Steelers drafted Hampton they knew what they were getting. In Pro Football Weekly’s 2001 Draft Preview, author Joel Buchsbaum described him as follows:
“Very wide and thick build. Has tremendous lower-body strength, power and explosion and is strong in the upper body. Can play over the center, over the guard or in the gap. Has quick, strong, vice-like hands and uses them well. Very tough to block on running plays and can really clog up the middle.
Buchsbaum’s lone criticism was that Hampton would “never be a top pass rusher, despite the fact that he is very tenacious because of his height and lack of long speed.”
Buchsbaum went on to predict that Hampton would be drafted early in the second round of the 2001 draft—and guessed that he would be selected 38th overall by the Chicago Bears.
But he remained on the draft board only half as long because nose tackles like Hampton were invaluable in that day and age, as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin explained during a recent conference call with fans.
“That position won’t be manned in the way Casey Hampton manned it years ago,” Tomlin said. “As a matter of fact, today’s game doesn’t require that you man it in that way. It was a heck of a lot more base defense back when Casey played…. The amount of running the football in the league at that time and more important[ly] the style of running—the double teams and so forth. It made guys like Casey not only necessary, but significant.”
Nowadays “there is probably more of a premium on those who rush the passer,” Tomlin added. “As much as we love Hamp, we know that pass rushing was not his forte.”
What is the Steelers’ Future at Nose Tackle?
If the position “won’t be manned in the way Casey Hampton manned it,” what’s the plan going forward?
Well, one part of the plan is to continue to utilize the aforementioned McCullers, albeit in a limited role.
The team’s hope, though, is that they can develop a player who can handle a nose tackle-like role, but offers noticeable pass rush skills. That’s where rookie seventh-round draft pick Carlos Davis comes into play. Davis might be a project, but his pass rush potential is obvious—as you’ll see in the video below—hence the selection.
Meanwhile, a trio of guys who are really defensive ends may take some of the snaps at defensive tackle, including Tyson Alualu, who Tomlin described on the above-referenced conference call as “position flexible.”
The Steelers also have Chris Wormley in the fold, having acquired him in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens, as well as Isaiah Buggs, who was drafted in the sixth round last year. Finally, Henry Mondeaux could potentially add himself to the mix.
But with Javon Hargrave lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency, this is the group that the Steelers will have to rely on in 2020. And it’s a group that could be very successful.
The risk, though, is that opponents will begin using a run-heavy attack against the Steelers, especially in the latter part of games. Moreover, there have been hints that a renewed emphasis on rushing the ball is in the offing around the NFL.
All of which might lead to the addition of a veteran free agent nose tackle before the regular season opener. Or, the Steelers might trade for a nose tackle once the season is underway, kind of like they did with Minkah Fitzpatrick at safety and Nick Vannett at tight end. One trade possibility to keep in mind is Star Lotulelei, who the Buffalo Bills might look to move in an effort to shed salary.
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