Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon suffered a shoulder injury toward the end of the first half against the Baltimore Ravens in the second game of the season. The injury was reaggravated a few weeks later against the Cleveland Browns, which caused him to miss the next two games, returning for the rematch against the Ravens.
It seems, however, that that injury has flared up significantly for a third time this season against the New York Jets, and according to head coach Mike Tomlin during his Tuesday press conference, he is already deemed questionable to play next week against the Tennessee Titans.
Of course, McLendon inherited the starting nose tackle job from long-time Steeler Casey Hampton following the 2012 season.
In his first season as a full-time starter last year, he battled a number of lower body injuries that caused him to miss some starts. He revealed in the offseason that he believed he over-trained, and that led to making himself more prone to injury.
He believed that he corrected that this offseason, bulking up while maintaining his athleticism, but this is now the second season in which he is forced to plow through, grin and bear it through injury.
That’s not to say that I believe he’s injury prone. I’m not sure of the nature of his current injury, but playing certainly doesn’t help it heal. With a bye week coming up after the Steelers’ next game, then, it wouldn’t be surprising if the team leans toward the cautious side and rests him to give him extra time to recuperate.
That leaves the Steelers with two options at nose tackle in the meantime: Cam Thomas, the veteran free agent signing, and Daniel McCullers, the raw rookie size prospect who has seen action in three games due to injury.
When McLendon missed time earlier this season, the defense responded by working more in their sub-package rather than fielding a defensive line consisting of a second or third option at the all-important nose tackle position.
To help combat some of the deficiencies against the run in the smaller lineup, the Steelers have been getting bigger at linebacker, playing Vince Williams rather than Sean Spence or Ryan Shazier. That seems like a strategy that is likely to continue.
Another interesting observation from the Steelers’ last game, noted by Dave Bryan on Monday, is that, for the first time this season, Thomas failed to log a single snap at nose tackle on Sunday against the Jets.
The beneficiary of that was the rookie McCullers, who logged a career-high 11 snaps at nose tackle in the Steelers base defense. McCullers played only 13 snaps combined in the base defense at nose tackle in the other two games in which he dressed. Thomas, in contrast, logged 35 snaps at nose tackle in those games.
So what happens now if McLendon is out? The Steelers only logged 48 of 131 snaps in their base defense in the two games that he missed earlier this year, or about 37 percent.
Is McCullers ready for that workload—or more accurately, is the coaching staff ready to give it to him? More likely he would split snaps with Thomas, but the ratio might be more favorable for the rookie this time around.