Too many fans in Steelers Nation fail to appreciate the value that Pittsburgh Steelers free agent nose tackle Steve McLendon brings to the table. But the same token, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin need to take care not to over value McLendon’s services as the former undrafted rookie defensive lineman approaches free agency and his third NFL contract.
Capsule Profile of Steve McLendon’s Career with the Steelers
Steve McLendon might have the unenviable task of replacing Casey Hampton, but that’s how he cut his teeth in the NFL, playing in place of Hampton in the 2010 Steelers upset of the Houston Texans in a defensive performance that ranks as one of the franchise’s best.
McLendon only saw action in seven other games that season, but by 2011 he was a regular part of Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line rotation, and by 2012 McLendon’s 1 forced fumble and two sacks had a lot of fans suggesting that he was out performing Casey Hampton.
- Hampton of course did begin “Life’s Work” following the 2012 season, and McLendon stepped into fill his shoes.
Unfortunately, the Steelers defense slipped in 2013, and many fans fingered McLendon as the culprit, never mind that McLendon wasn’t even on the field for some of the more egregious running plays allowed by the Steelers defense (see Miami’s win over Pittsburgh in the snow.)
However, Johnny Mitchell suggested that McLendon needed to focus on being Steve McLendon and not trying to be Casey Hampton. McLendon has done that, and provided the Steelers with two straight seasons of stability at nose tackle.
The Case for Steelers Keeping Steve McLendon
From 2012 to 2013 the Steelers defense dropped from 2nd against the run to 21st against the run, only to rebound to 6th in both 2014 and 2015. It says here that that drop from 2012 to 2013 has a lot more to do with Larry Foote’s injury and Vince Williams’s rookie struggles than the switch from Casey Hampton to Steve McLendon.
- However, it’s also true that the Steelers run defense cannot improve if Steve McLendon isn’t doing is job well.
Unlike a lot of other positions, nose tackles in a 3-4 defense don’t have a lot of individual statistics to measure performance. McLendon might not be able to eliminate the middle of the field the way Casey Hampton did, but he’s shown himself to be a solid starter. On top of that, the Steelers have no replacement for him.
The Case Against Steelers Keeping Steve McLendon
Ed Bouchette once wrote that the nose tackle is the fulcrum on which the Steelers 3-4 defense rises and falls. Allotment of precious salary cap space might say otherwise, but the truth is that with Casey Hampton the Steelers had someone who could truly dominate. A generation earlier, the Steelers 1999 and 1998 defenses really did hinge on the health of nose tackle Joel Steed’s knees.
- The case against resigning Steve McLendon is that he merely good where the Steelers need great.
Steve McLendon is 30 years old, and investing big money in a long-term contract would be a waste of salary cap space that Pittsburgh could better use elsewhere.
Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Steve McLendon
Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Johnny Mitchell certainly need not be reminded of Steve McLendon’s importance to the defense and without a doubt they want Steve McLendon back in Pittsburgh.
Yet, when they take steps to make that happen, they must be mindful of the fact that the Steelers only played in their “base 3-4 defense” about a third of the time in 2015. Some calculations put that percentage at less than 30%.
- Either way, Steve McLendon only played 34% of the Steelers snaps in 2015.
It’s important to note, however, that that represents an increase of about 4% from 2013 and 2014 (although McLendon played in 16 games vs. 12 and 14 in the two previous seasons.) Either way, Steve McLendon is not a full time player in the Steelers defense, and the presents somewhat of a quandary.
- You can’t simply plug a nose tackle into your 3-4.
Daniel McCullers improved from 2014 to 2015 but did not show signs that he’s ready to handle the load. The nose tackle in the Steelers system might be a part time player, but his role of stuffing the middle on 1st and 2nd downs is critical to the Steelers success on 3rd downs.
The Steelers need to strike a balance between keeping Steve McLendon and resisting the temptation to overvalue his services.