Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon was once a fan favorite—back when he was a longshot undrafted free agent reserve. Now that he’s in the starting lineup, he’s quickly lost favor with many.
Granted, much of that has to do with the belief that he doesn’t have the size to play effectively as a nose tackle in the Steelers’ scheme. The second-year starter acknowledged over this offseason that he over-trained a year ago and played lighter than he intended, but is heavier entering this season.
But he missed the Steelers’ first preseason game due to a concussion, and made his 2014 in-game debut last week against the Buffalo Bills. He did so with mixed success, though it’s worth noting that the Bills were participating in their third preseason game, while McLendon was playing in his first, while also recovering from a concussion.
Excuses aside, below are a number of examples from the Bills game of McLendon’s performance, highlighting some of the peaks and valleys of his night, more often than not squaring off with Bills center Eric Wood.
Things started off well on the first play of the game when McLendon was able to bull rush Wood and push him back into the pocket, even withstanding a half-hearted chip in the process. He penetrated so far, in fact, that he pushed Wood back into running back C.J. Spiller, and then into Jason Worilds, chasing Spiller down.
McLendon wasn’t as successful later in the drive on yet another running play. This time, with the help of a chip, Wood was able to get the better of the nose tackle, knocking him off-balance just enough to turn him before quickly recovering, but not in time to get into the play.
Because of the disappointingly poor camera work, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what transpired on this play, but presumably Wood allowed McLendon to penetrate with little resistance because the play was a screen, and was designed to draw him in. But as he showed here, it’s a dangerous tactic to use against a nose tackle with McLendon’s athleticism.
Even with this being just a two-yard gain, the above play was one of the more frustrating on the night for McLendon. He was simply beaten cleanly by Wood, with just a slight chip from the right guard, turning him aside and allowing the runner to pass.
But McLendon had his way with Wood on more than one occasion when it came to rushing the passer. In fact, Wood was bested on two consecutive plays in the beginning of the second quarter. On this first play, McLendon was able to position Wood to the side and use his own momentum to push him upfield.
On second down, it was Kraig Urbik attempting to block the nose tackle. It didn’t take much more than raw power for McLendon to get by the right guard and pressure the quarterback.
One of the positive traits that McLendon has always possessed is his tireless work ethic, regardless of whether or not he is ideally suited to playing any particular position, and this play is an example of that. Here, he’s not bested or overpowered in any way. He simply lost his footing, and ended up on the ground. Even with two other defenders presumably about to tackle the running back, however, McLendon got up and pursued the ball.
In the end, it’s difficult to ascertain much of substance from this performance from nose tackle Steve McLendon, largely for reasons already stated. There were some positive signs of growth, but he not only wasn’t double teamed frequently, he also lost some individual battles without much more than a chip as assistance. Hopefully tomorrow night’s game will help further clarify what the Steelers have in him for this season.