Nose tackle Steve McLendon certainly gets talked about an awful lot for a player who, by percentage, doesn’t see a great deal of playing time, given that the Pittsburgh Steelers have resorted to spending most of their time in sub-packages.
The veteran nose tackle logged 379 snaps during the regular season, and much of that came in the nickel as a defensive tackle, and even had some time at defensive end when injuries at the position were a concern. He logged a little over a third of the team’s total defensive snaps as a result.
On Sunday, he logged 17 defensive snaps, or 23 percent, and only about half a dozen or so of them came from the base defense. The Steelers remained in the nickel defense even at the goal line on the Broncos’ game-winning drive with the nose tackle on the sidelines.
He didn’t even see a snap in the game until late in the first quarter, checking in on the final play of the quarter to give Cameron Heyward a quick breather for two plays before coming back in. both were passing plays, on the first of which he tried to loop around the defensive left side.
His first significant snaps came late in the second quarter when the Steelers pinned the Broncos back deep in their own end. After fighting a double team on a one-yard gain on first down, McLendon was put on the ground by the center to help open a hole that produced a 34-yard gain. When he got up, he was visibly upset, arguing that the Broncos had gotten away with a takedown.
Later in the drive, Denver put a double team on him after Peyton Manning audibled to a run, seeing the Steelers’ numbers in the box. McLendon took the double team as well as he could, but there was nobody to plug the resultant gap, producing a seven-yard run, though the game clock went from 47 seconds to 22 seconds by the time they ran another play—on which he covered the running back.
Midway through the third quarter, on a rare snap out of the base defense, the nose tackle was quite expertly neutralized in the pass rush by the center, mirroring McLendon and showing precision hand placement and footwork. It was only at the last moment that he won late with a swim move as the ball was already coming out of Manning’s hand.
He got some late work again in the nickel to start the drive after the offense’s fumble, and he put some work in, registering three tackles during the fourth quarter, which was a season high for any game. His first tackle featured him doing well to use the left guard to control the action, first cutting underneath him before going over the top of the lineman after the running back cut up into the hole.
On the next play, he worked horizontally down the line facing a split zone front and peeled off the block of the guard in order to make the tackle, freeing his play side arm and swallowing up the back after a three-yard gain.
After the Broncos scored—again—against a nickel front with McLendon on the sideline—and the offense turned it over on downs, he made another key tackle on second down for no gain to help limit the damage, hold Denver to a field goal, and get the ball back.
I see no reason why the Steelers shouldn’t work out a modest contract to retain the veteran, who doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear in him despite being 30. He has proven himself to be a quality nose tackle in the team’s overall numbers against the run when he is on the field, but he is also athletic enough to log snaps in the nickel, and even, in a pinch as an end.
And considering the team spends about two thirds of its time in the nickel, that may be even more valuable than a ‘traditional’ nose tackle.