Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon is looking to play through his first injury-free season as a starter, his third attempt in accomplishing such a feat. While he has been healthy, he has played well, in spite of his many critics who regard him as undersized, and the season opener was no exception.
A favored criticism of the veteran defensive lineman is that he possesses an inability to command double teams, but that was certainly not the Patriots’ mindset during short-yardage situations, including an early scenario in the first quarter, on which McLendon rushed the gap in order to tie up the center and right guard.
With the two linemen occupied, the defense was playing a man up, and the safety was able to come in and make the run stop to set up a third and short, though the Patriots were able to convert on a quarterback sneak, on which they exploited a wide set against a three-tight end look.
McLendon did not generate a lot of pressure as a rusher, but he had a few successful instances here and there, including a late rush on the Patriots’ opening drive of the second half, in which he was able to drive back the right guard into the pocket, lined up as a three-tech in the quarters package.
The previous play drew a pass interference call in the end zone, however, in spite of the pressure, setting the Patriots up with first and goal at the one.
On first down, McLendon lined up as a one-tech over the center’s left shoulder as part of the goal line defense, and though it is difficult to tell due to the angle and the fact that he was playing low, he occupied the center and left guard on the play as the defense held for no gain.
The Steelers were thrust back into their goal line defense about 15 minutes of game time later, again with similar results from the same set up. With the end zone camera aligned behind the defense this time, it is easier to get a read on McLendon, and specifically the push that he was able to generate into the pocket.
The Steelers gave the ball away midway through the quarter, and McLendon was credited with the tackle on a first-down run that went for four yards. The Patriots pulled the tight end off the edge of the formation after the snap to pop the nose tackle, but he was able to shed and turn upfield to pursue the ball carrier.
Perhaps my favorite play of the night for McLendon came two plays later, however, on an outside zone run to the open side of the field. The veteran is obviously more agile than the average player at his position, and he knows how to use that to his advantage.
On this carry, he did an excellent job of scraping down the line while preserving his gap, giving the running back nowhere to go even as he cut back. McLendon was right there to make the tackle had another defender not done so.
He has improved on a yearly basis, to the point where it seems that less and less are actually questioning his physical ability to carry out his basic assignments, which is progress. The next step is to stay healthy.