Last week, with starting left defensive end Stephon Tuitt ailing, head coach Mike Tomlin chose to give Cam Thomas the start, where he spent most of the 2014 season. He played the majority of the game, and found mixed success against the run, doing well one-gapping in open space, but struggling near the goal line.
Tomlin had evidently seen enough of that, as he chose to move starting nose tackle Steve McLendon over to left defensive end, logging a career-high 56 snaps, most of that coming in sub-packages as a defensive tackle.
During his press conference yesterday, when asked about the decision, Tomlin said that he makes such decisions based on the players available to him, which largely deflected the question. The Steelers had the same personnel available to them last week and this week. He made a different decision each time.
McLendon not only started at defensive end, he played zero snaps at nose tackle. Those snaps went to Daniel McCullers, logging 26 snaps, split between the base and nickel.
One has to assume based on how things played out that Tomlin’s go-to plan to replace either of his starting defensive ends in the event of injury, from this point forward, is to slide McLendon over to defensive end, where he has been receiving more practice reps with the depth at the position so thin.
Thomas played just 12 snaps on Sunday after logging three times that number the week before. Most of it came in sub-packages, and most of it against the run. He failed to record a tackle, though he did gain penetration on one play, on which he was unable to make a strong play on the runner in the backfield.
He was credited with a missed tackle on that play, though that grading may be a bit harsh given the likelihood of his being able to make the tackle there. That play went for a 15-yard run that put the Bengals on the five-yard line.
Thomas stayed on the field for the end of the drive, which consisted of three passes, the final being intercepted in the end zone, but the lineman was unable to generate any push on the three quick throws.
Earlier in the game, however, he did gain some penetration, twice driving into Andy Dalton’s throwing lane, on the second time forcing the quarterback to vacate the pocket. It was overall a not altogether positive nor negative showing.
It does seem, however, that the Steelers are now comfortable with McLendon logging snaps at defensive end, and correspondingly, with McCullers logging significant snaps at nose tackle, which now appears to be their preferred arrangement with respect to building depth along the defensive line.
Ideally, Tuitt will return this week, but when he does return, whether it is Sunday or at a later date, it will be interesting to see who the fourth lineman on the field is. Will Thomas come on to replace one of the ends? Or will McLendon slide over to either end position, with McCullers coming in at nose tackle?