Steve McLendon is entering his third season as the starting nose tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers after spending the earlier part of his career as a role player. During that earlier portion, he played at a lighter weight and contributed at both nose tackle and defensive end. Many wondered whether or not he could withstand the rigors of a 16-game schedule in the middle of the defense.
One might say that the jury is still out on that front, depending on how you view the situation. He has more than proven that he has the ability to play and contribute to the defense’s success at a high level.
On the other hand, his two years as a starter in the NFL have also been plagued with injuries. While it has translated to six missed games over that two-year period, it has also caused him to miss time in other games. More importantly, it has forced him to play through those injuries in ways that reduced his effectiveness.
Of particular note was last season’s shoulder injury, which he originally suffered in the second game of the season. The injury lingered throughout the year, to the point that he had offseason surgery to clean it up. It flared up twice during the season, causing to miss pairs of games at a time.
One of the issues the Steelers faced last season was that they were uncomfortable with their backup nose tackle position. There were really only two options, and neither was ideal. The first option that they turned to was to shift Cam Thomas, who was starting at left defensive end, to nose tackle. But he is a journeyman-caliber player, and there was an obvious decline in the unit’s performance.
The second alternative was rookie Daniel McCullers. Despite being raw, he gradually began to make a slight impact by the end of his rookie season. His natural size and abilities were able to carry him through much of what he was missing as a rookie.
Reports about his progress in year two have been very positive, and he seems primed to take on a bigger role in year two. He has learned to become a professional, taking care of his body, and it seems that his teammates are noticing him taking his game to the next level.
That is, of course, a benefit for the defense, but perhaps the biggest impact it might have is to take some of the load off of McLendon, which may serve the purpose of keeping him fresher as the season progresses.
Whether or not there are legitimate endurance issues with McLendon as far as his snap count is concerned, if McCullers earns some snaps, it should benefit all parties involved. The veteran will turn 30 shortly after the regular season, so it’s not as though it’s becoming any easier for him to bounce back from injuries on a week to week basis.