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 pessimist’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 pessimist’s take on this question is that the Steelers’ inability or unwillingness to match an offer for nose tackle Steve McLendon would have an overall significant impact on what they like to do on defense.
McLendon’s role on defense has been mercurial over the course of his career. He entered the starting lineup as a nose tackle in 2013 after previously carving a role out for himself more as a defensive end, but the team has been moving away from a lot of base 3-4 looks since then.
That has especially become the case since last season, during which they played in sub-packages over two thirds of the time on defense, which doesn’t leave a ton of room left for a traditional nose tackle—not that McLendon is or has ever been a traditional nose tackle.
And that is why he is valuable to this Steelers defense, because there are a lot of things that he can do. He has not, perhaps, up to now, lived up to the expectations of him as a pass rusher after showing earlier signs of promise in that department in his career, but perhaps a summer session with the coach the other linemen visited could be an asset to him if indeed his role is evolving.
And it would have to be evolving, and expanding, if McLendon and the Steelers are to work out a deal, because he wants more playing time, and the team wants more of a pass rush. If they can be made comfortable plugging him into the nickel front line and letting him rush the passer with the expectation that he will find some success, then he will get his wish for more playing time, and they will get their wish for having depth.
It would be the best of both worlds given all of the other unheralded qualities that McLendon possesses, such as his criminally underrated footwork, his ability to flow down the line to protect against zone runs, and his hustle and ability to make plays down the field. He has the athleticism necessary to be a better pass rusher. If he can better channel that, he could be a bigger contributor to this defense.
Even putting that aside, he has been a tremendous asset in critical short-yardage and goal line situations, where the defense was very good last year, due in large part to the aforementioned qualities. And of course he already knows the defense very well. It would be unfortunate to lose him, even while at the same time you don’t want to overpay for a player for whom you have to wonder when he will play.