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Play of nose tackles could have impact on Steelers’ stretch run

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers defensive lineman Daniel McCullers (left) practices Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.

Daniel McCullers admittedly felt the weight of being the first Steelers rookie to start at nose tackle since 2002 when he stepped onto LP Field on Monday night at Tennessee.

McCullers was neither spectacular nor overwhelmed.

It wasn’t the battles won or lost that seemed to matter. Instead, it was the invaluable experience gained to be productive in a defense that relies on the nose tackle to funnel running backs to its linebackers.

So far, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau hasn’t found anyone to play the position as well as Casey Hampton, who adjusted quickly when inserted into the starting lineup during his rookie season 12 years ago.

However, LeBeau suggested last week that McCullers is the nose tackle of the future. He likely will get a chance to start ahead of ailing veteran Steve McLendon when the Steelers face the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 30 at Heinz Field.

“I had to keep working hard,” said McCullers, who was inactive for the first six games. “I want it more because they didn’t see fit to use me before. So I got better in practice, and my time came.

“There’s a lot to take in every day when you’re trying to learn the plays. It takes up a lot of time to learn the system.”

The Steelers appeared somewhat desperate by throwing McCullers into the starting lineup four weeks after his NFL debut in a prime time game against Houston at Heinz Field.

It was a move necessitated, in part, because of the inconsistent play of McLendon and Cam Thomas.

McLendon has been slowed by a shoulder injury that kept him out of a 27-24 win over the Titans. Thomas admits to having difficulty switching from defensive end to tackle in a 3-4 defense slightly unlike the one he was accustomed to with the Chargers.

“In San Diego, it’s a little different technique, and it’s different than what I’m used to,” Thomas said, “More than anything, I have to be comfortable in my own skin when I’m out there.

“At the beginning, I was thinking too much instead of making plays. This is a unique defense, so you have to be a little more precise.”

McCullers didn’t record a tackle against the Titans. At times, the 352-pounder was handled easily by the Titans’ offensive front.

“I feel as if I took advantage of my chance,” he said. “We worked some New Orleans plays (on Wednesday), so we have a feel for what they are going to do.”

With the Steelers vying for the AFC North title and a playoff berth, the learning curve has to be rather steep for McCullers and Thomas. The Steelers will face two teams — Kansas City and Cincinnati — that rely heavily on the ground game.

So far, right inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons has been able to flow to the ball and record a team-high 102 tackles.

But safeties Mike Mitchell and Troy Polamalu have been overworked this season. The tandem has a combined 99 tackles, in part because injury-plagued left inside linebacker Ryan Shazier has been in and out of the lineup.

That circumstance puts pressure on McCullers and Thomas to impact the game.

“Whatever they need me to do, I’ll do,” Thomas said. “I’m really getting comfortable with the scheme. I have a better understanding of how they want me to play in this defense.

“(Defensive line) coach (John) Mitchell says you don’t have to make a play, but be the reason why someone else does. Basically, that’s saying do your job.”

The Steelers nose tackles will have to do a better job down the stretch to keep run-oriented offenses from controlling the game and the Steelers’ playoff fate.

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].

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