While the Pittsburgh Steelers may have gained some tangible evidence of improvement, improving their win total by three games and hosting a playoff game as a division champion for the first time in four seasons, there is no doubt that the team is far from a finished product.
No team, of course, is a finished product in the offseason. Every team loses players to free agency and retirement, and replaces them through the same free agency process, as well as the draft.
With all of the change that occurs during the offseason, it’s often difficult to predict how a particular team might fare. They may wind up holding the Lombardi trophy or the first overall draft pick when all is said and done.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the pessimistic side of the coin.
Question: How big of a question mark does Steve McLendon’s shoulder put on the nose tackle position?
After the Steelers let Casey Hampton’s contract expire, they were quickly faced with the need to sign Steve McLendon, after it appeared that he was going to entertain an offer from Green Bay. Two years through that three-year contract, McLendon has been able to deliver on the field, but one wonders if he has a short shelf-life.
Prior to taking over the starting role at nose tackle—which already consists of a highly reduced snap count compared to other positions on both sides of the ball—McLendon’s role was very limited, taking reps at defensive end, nose tackle, and defensive tackle in sub-packages. He impressed in short bursts, which encouraged the Steelers to move forward with him.
But while he has played well in his starting role over the course of the past two seasons, he has also played frequently while banged up, or not played at all. He has missed six starts in total over the past two seasons, along with parts of other games, due to ankle and shoulder injuries, with four of those games coming last season due to a nagging shoulder injury.
McLendon suffered his shoulder injury initially in the second game of the season against the Ravens, in a game in which he could not complete. He was questionable to play the following week, but did manage to do so, and recorded his first sack as a starter in the process.
The injury was re-aggravated multiple times throughout the course of the year, causing him to miss pairs of games at a time. It’s an injury that continued to bother him throughout the playoffs, despite the fact that he played in the last five games, though he left the penultimate regular season game against the Chiefs with what was described as a stinger.
What the Steelers must learn is whether or not this shoulder ailment will be a one-year incident, or if it will become a chronic problem, and whether or not McLendon will be susceptible to such chronic ailments in his role as a starter.
If that is indeed the case that his body is wearing down, then the 29-year-old may not last too much further beyond the one year left on his contract. He will have to show that he can avoid the nagging injuries to instill some confidence in the decision makers.