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With Steve McLendon gone, the Pittsburgh Steelers turn to enormous backup Daniel McCullers

The Steelers expected McLendon to leave and McCullers to take over the nose. But does McCullers really, really want it? Jim Wexell has the background story.

I was looking through an old video of the Pittsburgh Steelers excitedly filing into their locker room following a win over the Denver Broncos on Dec. 20.

It was their third consecutive win and the surging team was hoping for an easy fourth the following week against the injury-ravaged and down-and-out Baltimore Ravens. 

I was actually -- in light of the recent Martavis Bryant suspension -- looking for the proof that I thought I had remembered, that the team that day, after that game, allowed into their locker room a musician -- Wiz Khalifa -- who has publicly admitted to a $10,000 a month pot habit.

Yeah, it was that kind of an investigative report I was after. And there he was, Khalifa, in his mink coat, being waved inside.

But something else caught my eye as Mike Tomlin greeted his players with an assortment of salutations and chest bumps on their way in.

"Way to get excited Big Dan!" Tomlin said as an unexcited Big Dan McCullers walked past with a grin on his face. 

McCullers, of course, is rarely excited about anything, and he had only played three defensive snaps that day, none of which ended with a tackle by him. So the commentary from Tomlin came off as more of a friendly jab.

McCullers just doesn't get excited, and I have often wondered if he ever gets excited about football. I've also wondered if the massive 6-7, 352-pounder, who seemingly collapses pockets any time he's in the mood, really likes football at all, whether he's just been instructed to like it and play it and continue at it because that's what it appears he has been put on this planet to do.

Well, his time has come, whether he's ready or not, because the Steelers lost a heart-and-soul guy, Steve McLendon, to the New York Jets yesterday for a reported $12 million over three years.

Wise move by the Jets. And, frankly, it was a wise move by the Steelers to not attempt to match such a contract for a starting nose tackle who only received approximately 30 percent of the defensive snaps in an evolving defensive scheme.

McLendon's replacement -- at least immediately -- is McCullers, the big guy who didn't seem to make much progress from his rookie season.

Drafted way down in the sixth round in 2014, the enormous McCullers explained that his senior season at Tennessee was a disappointment because he had been taken off the nose position he played his junior season and moved to left defensive tackle where he was turned into a 3-technique, playmaking tackle. 

While the Steelers are playing more four-man front, they already have their 3-technique in Stephon Tuitt, so McCullers has backed up McLendon at nose tackle on run downs and, as a rookie, made three tackles (including one in the playoff game) after sitting out the first six games.

It wasn't much, but the monster with the long 36 1/2-inch arms seemingly had all the potential in the world as he often obliterated entire lines, or so it seemed.

But this past season, while McCullers played in more games (12) and made more tackles (8), the expectations -- at least by fans and media -- of vast progress weren't met.

Now, there might be an entirely different mindset being held by a coaching staff that's told McCullers he's expected to play much more this coming season, and a front office that let McLendon go without trying to keep him. 

And, again, with the nose position dying on the Steelers' schematic vine, perhaps the expectations being held for McCullers aren't that important anyway. The Steelers are playing without a nose tackle about 70 percent of the time, and their linemen are being instructed to attack and disrupt more than at any time since Mean Joe Greene retired. 

Behind Tuitt and Cam Heyward are young L.T. Walton and Caushaud Lyons, both brought in last year as rookie 3-4 ends/4-3 tackles. The Steelers are also hoping to sign 30-year-old free agent defensive end Jason Jones, whom the Detroit Lions are trying to convince to re-sign with them at the moment. 

Jones would become a valuable handyman for the Steelers. He can play 4-3 end, 3-4 end and 4-3 tackle as a rotational player and of course as the first sub in case of injury.

If the Steelers re-sign Jones, look for them to draft competition for McCullers after the first round, someone such as Javon Hargrave, the NT/DT who's built like Geno Atkins and dominated his small-school competition so thoroughly he's been named MEAC Defensive Player of the Year two years in a row.

If the Steelers can't sign Jones, the stakes of finding a defensive lineman are probably raised into the first round. 

It's a rich vein of talented defensive linemen in this draft, but it hopefully would turn into a rich vein of talent on the Steelers' bench IF McCullers can prove us outsiders wrong and show that he really can get excited about the game of football.

But that's a very big IF.


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