Much of the defensive talk regarding the Steelers this offseason centers around Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier reaching their potential, and their need to remain healthy in order for the defense to take a step forward. While that is a very valid point, that is just one of the issues that Keith Butler needs to resolve in order for the Steelers’ defense to evolve into part of the solution to bringing a seventh Super Bowl title back to Pittsburgh. Age and injuries have surely gone hand in hand with the reduction in the ability of the defense to create the big plays that Steeler Nation is accustomed to seeing. But as the defense transitions to life under new defensive coordinator Keith Butler, there is comfort in knowing that the continuity of the system remains and that there is plenty of talent available to develop going forward.
Since 1992, when the Steelers converted to a 3-4 defense under Bill Cowher and Dom Capers, the main function of the defensive line has been to occupy blockers, plug up the running lanes and to keep the linebackers freed up to make plays and to get pressure on the quarterback, which they have done very well throughout the years. From Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene, to Joey Porter and Clark Hagans, to James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, Steelers’ outside linebackers have been bringing nightmarish pressure for the last 23 years. The one constant in all that success at getting to the quarterback has been a stout defensive tackle that can occupy multiple blockers. First it was Joel Steed, drafted out of Colorado in 1992, followed by Casey Hampton who was the Steelers’ first pick out of Texas in 2001. It’s no coincidence that the Steelers’ sack numbers have dropped since “Big Snack” wandered off into the sunset after the 2012 season. Perhaps the next Steed/Hampton type defensive tackle just might already be on the current roster and perhaps he may be able to offer a bit more than that as well. Perhaps it is Daniel McCullers.
McCullers is a mountain of a man at 6’7″/352 pounds and he provides a monster of an obstacle to move out of the way for any offensive lineman. Not only is he the human version of a solar eclipse, but he is surprisingly agile for a man of his size. Aside from his obvious stature, his biggest advantage may be his reach, which measured out at the combine at 36-5/8″. That’s a reach of over three feet, and at the end of those arms are massive 11″ hands. The only thing holding McCullers back is the time it’s going to take for him to master the techniques necessary to have an impact on defense. With his surprising quickness, he has the ability to get pressure on the quarterback. With his sheer size, he should have no problems stopping any ball carrier who might unwisely choose to challenge his gap assignment. Another element Daniel McCullers adds to the defense is the ability to get his hands up in the air to impede the quarterback’s vision and to knock passes down at the line of scrimmage.
What the Steelers could use from the defensive line is generally what has never been asked of them — to consistently get pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz. This would greatly aid the secondary and make Keith Butler’s blitz packages much more effective in the process. Last year, Cam Heyward had his breakout season, with 7.5 sacks, and only looks to keep improving, while Stephon Tuitt showed great promise by the end of the season. If McCullers can take that next step and work himself into the regular rotation, the defensive line will quickly become a team strength and graduate from the work in progress it has been since 2012.
Shamarko Thomas was drafted as a safety out of Syracuse and was known to have the cover skills to play cornerback in a pinch if needed. As a rookie, he was starting to see more and more playing time until a leg injury derailed his promising rookie season. Ever since, various injuries have kept him from seeing whether or not his playing ability can match his work ethic. Now entering his third season, Thomas has the best chance to date of earning a starting role in a Steelers’ secondary that has undergone a major youth movement. With the recent departures of long time fixtures Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, Thomas has the opportunity to put to use all of the lessons he has learned as Polamalu’s protégé. He brings to the table athleticism, good ball skills and a willingness to hit those with the ball who cross his path. Thomas is an intelligent player and a sure tackler who can more than adequately make up for the loss of Polamalu, if he can stay on the field. While the questions to this point about Shamarko Thomas are legitimate, he has been working hard this offseason with trainer Brian Martin. His regimen included lots of cardio, parabolic and stretching. I predict that he will break out this season and will help form a solid pairing at safety with a healthy Mike Mitchell.
I’m a born optimist by nature. When I look at the Steelers’ defense, I see a unit that is obviously still developing. They have size, and are young, athletic and fast. There is enough natural ability that they can get by on until they start grasping the system and gelling as a unit. I believe the defense will be better than most media entities are predicting, and that Daniel McCullers and Shamarko Thomas will make their presences felt this year. While Steeler Nation looks to see if Jarvis Jones can become what he was envisioned to be, how much Bud Dupree gets on the field, or how Ryan Shazier progresses in year two, don’t sleep on McCullers or Thomas because they are going to be the pleasant surprises of the 2015 season.