As should have been anticipated, Cam Thomas was the first defensive end off the bench for the Pittsburgh Steelers on opening night, stepping in early in the second quarter to give Cameron Heyward a breather on a long drive.
Also filling in for nose tackle Steve McLendon was Daniel McCullers, who came onto the field after the Steelers shifted from the nickel back to their base. But after two plays of a lineup consisting of Thomas, McCullers, and Stephon Tuitt, something changed.
Pittsburgh stuck McLendon out there at defensive end in a base look, playing left defensive end next to McCullers, at midfield on first and 10.
The veteran nose tackle only logged 24 snaps in the game, less than half of the defense’s total figure, which is par for the course these days for most nose tackles around the league due to the proliferation of spread offenses that require a number of defensive backs to counter them.
McLendon has over the course of his first two seasons as a starter been one of the better players on defense for the Steelers, a fact that remained in the true column on Thursday night. But his skills were often not taken fully advantage of due to the amount of time he spent on the sideline.
If the Steelers intend to increase his reps by playing him as the second-team defensive end along with McCullers and Thomas in order to get their starting defensive ends a breather—a pair that the team is relying upon a ton this season—then this is a plan that I’m all for.
Thomas is, to be clear, the third defensive end on the team, and I certainly would not expect that to change. The improved lineman logged 13 snaps against the Patriots, all of which, if I’m not mistaken, were taken at defensive end or as a three-tech in sub-packages.
In fact, McLendon took just those two snaps at defensive end, early in the second quarter—the final two plays of the Patriots’ first touchdown drive. That look was not seen again for the rest of the game—largely because Tuitt only missed seven total snaps during the game, and Heyward 10.
But it was certainly equally surprising and intriguing, as this was not something that was anticipated outside of the club. The idea has a good deal of merit, and I would expect that we see this expanded upon throughout the season, particularly against more run-heavy teams, as in the Steelers’ next opponent.
As previously mentioned, the team is relying heavily upon Tuitt and Heyward this season, so it would make sense to have a plan in place to keep them fresher later in games. But there’s more to it than that.
Previously, the team did not really have another viable nose tackle option, but they feel they have one in McCullers who can take some snaps. But two of the five defensive ends on the roster are L.T. Walton and Caushaud Lyons, neither of whom are ready to see playing time.
Having a second nose tackle in place allows the Steelers to give McLendon some reps on the end, where they can not only give him more playing time, but allow him to better take advantage of some of the athleticism that is not fully utilized inside.