The Pittsburgh Steelers officially ruled out defensive end Stephon Tuitt for tomorrow’s game as the second-year player is set to miss the first game of his young, 22-game career. The Steelers will have to get creative in replacing him in the lineup, and, based on last week, part of that plan will include nose tackle Steve McLendon.
Over the course of the past two weeks, the Steelers have opened up in the nickel defense, and have logged the vast majority of their snaps with five defensive backs on the field, which means that the nose tackle, the vast majority of the time, has been on the sidelines.
Since Daniel McCullers has been out, Pittsburgh had sort of moved away from the idea of giving McLendon some reps at defensive end in the base defense, but that may change tomorrow with Tuitt out, and especially with McCullers back and presumably ready to actually log some snaps, after returning but failing to get on the field on Sunday.
The Steelers’ last two opponents brought a lot of aerial firepower, however, to dictate sub-package play. The Chiefs do not exactly have that with Alex Smith, though Jeremy Maclin is a very good receiver. But without Jamaal Charles, they figure to throw the ball a good amount anyway.
Personally, I find that McLendon’s level of play has slipped some over the past few weeks. While it is understandable that his pass rush skill set has never fully blossomed, he has not held the point of attack against the run as well recently, though not deficiently.
But his first snap of the game was an impressive one, coming on to face a second and three from the Steelers’ 25 a couple of minutes into the game. Off the snap, McLendon got a great burst on the ball, driving the center back and turning him. Perhaps his excellent penetration may have influenced the botched handoff that ensued, but either way, he would have been there to make the play for a loss.
Later in the first quarter, a 42-yard punt was downed at the two-yard line, backing the Cardinals up to the shadow of their own end zone, which called for the base defense to put the pressure on Arizona’s offensive line to create some breathing room.
The Steelers presented a 4-3 look with the play side outside linebacker dropping to the second level, and the line slid over with McLendon as a three-technique. The Cardinals double-teamed him, however, taking him off the line, but he ultimately fought back into the play to register an assist after a three-yard gain.
Tuitt went down late in the game, with both L.T. Walton and Cam Thomas checking in before him. But the Steelers called a timeout prior to a third-and-eight play to get McLendon on the field in the nickel as a defensive tackle.
Lined up over the right guard on his first snap, the nose tackle was able to get a good initial push, but was ultimately washed outside, giving Palmer a pocket to step up in to deliver a 20-yard pass.
Palmer threw an interception one play later, but McLendon came back to finish the Cardinals’ last drive as well, logging nearly half of his 26 snaps in the last three minutes of the game. In truth, he had very little impact as a pass rusher on that series, though he did get a bit of penetration on the third play of the final drive, which went for a completed pass of eight yards.
The Steelers talked about possibly getting McLendon some reps earlier in the season as the fourth defensive end, though Walton has now gotten some as well. With McCullers finally back and healthy, and with Tuitt out, perhaps he does play some double duty at both nose and end tomorrow.