The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: How much of an impact would the loss of Steve McLendon in free agency have on the defense?
Before beginning to answer the question, for the purposes of clarity, the optimist’s take on this question is that the Steelers’ inability or unwillingness to match an offer for nose tackle Steve McLendon would not have an overall significant impact on what they like to do on defense.
Veteran lineman of about seven years, Steve McLendon has grown, and then waned, in importance over the span of the past three seasons. He entered the starting lineup in 2013 after being re-signed as a restricted free agent to a three-year contract to replace Casey Hampton, and has since then played in 42 games, but only started 30. And that discrepancy in starts is a significant part of the explanation for why his loss would not be the end of the world.
Last year was the most extreme, and the most telling. 2015 was the only year during his time as a starter in which he did not miss a game due to injury, playing in all 16, but he only started nine games, his lowest as a starter.
The simple fact of the matter is that the nose tackle position is not an overly significant part of the Steelers’ offense anymore, given that they rely upon their nickel package somewhere between two third to three fourths of the time that they are on the field.
McLendon’s statistics in 2013 were 33 tackles and a forced fumble, missing two games due to injury. They dropped to 21 tackles and a sack in 12 games in 2014. In 16 games last year, he recorded only 14 tackles and a sack. Obviously the nose tackle position is not geared toward accumulating statistics, but for a player such as McLendon who is already an unconventional body for the role, the dwindling numbers are notable.
The greatest concern with McLendon is the fact that, over the past three years, he has never really displayed the pass rush ability that seemed to be present in his years as a reserve player. That he doesn’t offer much as a pass rusher limits his value to a defense that primarily relies upon two down linemen.
Depending on what it might cost to re-sign him, the Steelers may be better off relying upon a deep defensive tackle pool in the draft instead to replace him. It may initially be a hindrance to their short-yardage situational defense, but somebody who would be better suited to rotate in for nickel snaps would be better served for today’s defense, and also happens to be an area of need.