Steelers NT Steve McLendon The Focal Point Of New Look Defensive Front

By Matthew Marczi

The belief that defensive tackle Steve McLendon’s play over the past two seasons has merited more snaps on defense has become ubiquitous, particularly this offseason. There is little question, of course, that Casey Hampton is the greatest nose tackle in Pittsburgh Steelers history, but McLendon’s rise has most feeling comfortable with saying their goodbyes to Big Snack.

However, with McLendon’s emergence into the starting lineup, it seems inevitable that a slight change in approach and philosophy is in order. Whereas Hampton is the prototypical space-eating tackle whose priority it is to occupy blockers to free up others to make plays, McLendon’s game is, by necessity, more varied.

McLendon has a more athletic build, and does not possess Hampton’s strength, so it is not surprising that he frequently cites Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff as a big influence, who has the capacity to play more as a 4-3 defensive tackle in a 3-4 scheme while still staying true to his assignments.

“The typical Steve McLendon is…powerful and strong like Casey…smart like Chris Hoke, and…quick and fast like Jay Ratliff”, he told reporters last month. He knows that perhaps he can’t match the strength of Hampton, or the intelligence for the position of Hoke, or even the quickness of Ratliff, but by melding these three traits together, he can play at a high level.

It will be difficult to truly compare and contrast how the running game plays with Hampton and McLendon at nose tackle. Part of that is because Hampton spent much of his career alongside run stuffers such as Aaron Smith, Kimo von Oelhoffen, and Brett Keisel, (not to mention James Harrison, among the best 3-4 outside linebackers against the run in recent memory), whereas McLendon will be paired with Keisel, Ziggy Hood, and Cameron Heyward.

It is easy to imagine, however, that McLendon will be a factor on the stats sheet more frequently than Hampton, which will be the biggest change for the defense, though that does not necessarily mean better.

Take, for example, last season, even though Hampton was obviously not at the peak of his career. He did not register a sack; in fact, he has just nine sacks in his 12 seasons. McLendon, making no starts, registered two sacks on the year, including two that he split credit for, so he was technically in on three sacks.

More telling is that McLendon registered six quarterback pressures, just two fewer than Hampton, but on just 27.5% of the snaps (495 for Hampton against McLendon’s 136). McLendon also forced a fumble; none of Hampton’s four career forced fumbles came in the last two seasons.

Given the rapid decline of production from the outside linebacker position over the course of the past two seasons, any additional pressure that the front line can generate would most certainly be welcome until LaMarr Woodley can prove that he can stay healthy and Jason Worilds can prove that he can be consistent. McLendon was nearly three times more productive as a pass rusher than Hampton on a per snap basis.

Interestingly, their tackle totals were quite comparable relative to their playing time—McLendon’s seven to Hampton’s 26. On the other hand, four of McLendon’s tackles were solo, whereas only 11 of Hampton’s were unassisted. McLendon also had two tackles for losses.

McLendon claims to have dropped weight from a season ago, which should put him somewhere near Hampton’s comically inaccurate playing weight of 325 as listed by the team. It will be interesting to see how the fourth-year defensive tackle handles double teams relying more on technique and quickness than on strength, certainly.

It also remains to be seen how he holds up under significantly more snaps, considering that he owns but one start to his name. What does seem clear based on the numbers, however, is that he will add a greater playmaking potential to the nose tackle position. And, as he suggests, he can play defensive end in nickel situations—if the coach allows it.

It is a new era along the defensive front seven; four of the seven opening day starters from just two seasons ago are now gone, and another two may very well be in their final season with the team, or at least as the starter. And, bolstered by a new three-year, $7.5 million contract, McLendon plans to be at the center of it all.

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • steeltown

    I love the fact that he could play DE in a pinch.. I welcome his athleticism, big play ability and potential for increased pass rush, something our Defensive front 7 have been lacking the last two seasons. I think he and Worilds will add more speed up front, while Cortez should hopefully add a few more turnovers in the back end

    With all mentioned above and the fact that Hood and Woodley are out to prove some naysayers wrong I hope to see some ferocious D this year

  • dgh57

    Teams are going to have to deal with this new aspect of the Steelers Defense! Pressure on the QB from another angle that Hampton didn’t provide. I love his quickness and teams will be seeing plenty of Mr. McLendon in their backfields this season and he’ll be making a name for himself in the process!

  • steeltown

    Whats interesting is the potential athleticism of the group (DL and OLB) they can lineup in some crazy formations. I like the re-addition of Gay to the DB’s as well, he brings a little bit different skill set

  • 2443scott

    from over last few years the def line has been getting the linemen chop blocked and even tackled on line and guys have even started on the off line to fall on back legs of def players and those big nose tackles cant get away from those types of tactics so it changed way front def line worked …if was up to me i have all lbers on def line and rush the qb and blitz every down just to see how it would disrupt the off line and fill rest def with dbs….opps i for got not to spill the beans on the new def front line .

  • Douglas Andrews

    I still remember McClendon sacking M. Vick last year. On that play he showed his athletecism by basically sacking Vick with one hand after he caught him from behind. For a big guy he is lite on his feet. If he turns out to be a playmaker from the NT position our run D should be improved from last year. Hopefully Hood follows suit and cleans up his act. He is an athletic freak for a guy his size. Just wish some of that would translate to the football field if it does we should easily have the #1 run D this year and with an improved secondary should lead to more W’s

  • 2443scott

    lol this is a little off this story but has to do with a def guy …this was posted on bleachereport on how to know if your a steeler fan ……….We’ve all sat there and screamed at the TV as the referees threw another roughing the passer flag at James Harrison. Whether you actually thought Harrison did in fact rough the quarterback, you knew that the NFL would be fining him at some point later that week.

    The next day you get a letter in the mail and it says it’s from Roger Goodell.

    Upon opening the letter you realize that it is actually a ticket for $10,500 per sack because you failed to overt your eyes from the quarterback being taken down during the game.

    In case you weren’t already pissed about it, you then remember that Tom Brady was only fined $10,000 for cleating Ed Reed in the playoffs. Frank Gore was fined $10,500 for his socks being too low during the NFC Championship Game.

  • Fivesevenzero Sports-Radio

    Gay was awful in Pittsburgh and the reason we let him go in the first place. Sickens me he is back. Got absolutely smoked in coverages all day. They only brought him back for depth since Keenan left and because he knows the defense. Pray he doesn’t see a lot of playing time. There is a reason teams keep letting him go and its not because hes good!! Sorry im not Sorry about Gay

  • steeltown

    We didn’t let him go, he left via FA because he had a good season (his first as a full time starter) in 2011.. 61 tackles, 2INTs and a FF, that’s 2 more INT’s than Keenan had last year as a starter. We had the #1 pass Defense and #1 overall Defense in 2011 with Gay starting opposite Ike Taylor.. if he was terrible we sure as hell wouldn’t have the #1 pass defense in the League

    Yea, he’s been out of position a few times in the past, but everyone has bad games. Look at Ike Taylor in the DEN playoffs, it happens. He cant cover TE’s to well because of the size difference (which is why Cortez takes that duty) but he is a very solid player all around and can blitz well off the edge… and the reason the Cards let him go is because he overachieved and they didn’t want to pay up incentives, Gay hit an escalator which was going to bump his salary from $1.475 million to $3.225 million, they couldn’t pay it. It had nothing to do with him playing poorly, in fact it was the opposite

  • Shea Fahr

    The Steelers would have kept Gay but the Cards offered him a bit more than they could manage at the cap level and they had to see what they had in Lewis. I agree he is no Revis but he OUTPLAYED his contract in Arizona and they did not want to pay him the incentives so he was let go. He is a valuable piece of the secondary in the Nickel and I feel good about having him back…especially at his salary.

  • cencalsteeler

    The NFL is trending more towards athletic lineman, both offensive and defensively. I am glad to see the Steelers converting, for I felt if moves were not made, our line blocking was starting to seem archaic. The days of lineman with the huge boilers, I believe, are over.

  • steeltown

    Not to mention durability

  • NW86

    Steeltown, how dare you use actual informed dialogue in regards to Gay! Don’t you know it’s more fun to remember those few ugly plays in 2009-2010 when he blew assignments and gave up a few big plays, and to rip him throughout his entire career based on those few plays??

    I’m being sarcastic, of course. Great post.

  • steeltown

    Its funny because previously I too was not a Willie Gay fan based on some awful plays in the past, but its unfair to judge a player on a few bad plays. In general he is a very solid player and as a #3 I am more than happy to have him

  • Shea Fahr

    Exactly.

  • Matthew Marczi

    There’s no way anybody could have been in Gay’s corner after the 2009 debacle. But I really liked how he stepped up in 2008 as a young player when Bryant McFadden went down. And honestly, outside of a couple of games in 2010 *cough* the Patriots game *cough* that wasn’t a bad season either. He may have had some ups and downs last year with the Cardinals, but he’s back in a familiar scheme where he excelled in 2011. Although, I have to admit, Jim Wexell’s comment that he saw Gay get beat deep a little too often in OTAs is a little unnerving, but I still think he should do just fine. I’m more worried about the third safety in 2013 than I am about the third CB.

  • steeltown

    Yea he created 5 turnovers last season in Arizona (3FF, 2INTs I think) I’ll take that turnover production any day of the week compared to what our DB’s have been producing lately

    I agree about the Safety position

  • walter mason

    I disagree. I think Gay was a great signing. He played much improved his last year. We absolutely needed another experienced corner. We were an injury away from disaster at the CB position.

  • walter mason

    I like McClendon. I wish he would have played more last year. (at DE)

  • Fivesevenzero Sports-Radio

    Have you watched the games? We walked into 2 ints. Ike Taylor never gets INTS.. so does he suck? listen, If Gay had such a great year for US when why did the Cardinals with a 500k signing bonus and with nothing guaranteed in year 2?? Why did no other team offer him a better deal?? What Teams isn’t HAPPY paying a Starting CB in this League anywhere between 1-3 Mil..point is the backloaded the deal because they knew he wasnt going to be a long term answered. Needed a Band-aid for a year.

    I dont DISLIKE the Gay signing as long as he plays special teams and is limited on the field. Maybe Blitz on 3rd downs from the nickel or whatever but PLEASE dont be that big of a Homer to say hes good… Stop it

  • Fivesevenzero Sports-Radio

    The Fact is Gay is awful in coverage. he is Good open field tackler, Good coming off a blitz. I think thats why so many people thought there was a possibility for him to backup at safety.

  • John A Stewart

    GAY WAS THE WORST CORNERBACK LAST YEAR IN THE NFL HE ALONE GAVE UP OVER 700 YARDS. AND I STILL CAN’T BELIEVE HE’S BACK ON THE TEAM THIS IS BS.

  • John A Stewart

    GAY SUCKS PLAIN AND SIMPLE QB’S LICK THEIR CHOPS WHEN THEY SEE HIM.

  • John A Stewart

    STEELTOWN YOU KILLING ME WITH THIS GAY CRAP.HORTON DIDN’T EVEN TAKE GAY WITH HIM TO CLEVELAND.

  • SteelersDepot

    Do you watch the games blindfolded or do you read them in braille?

  • Matthew Marczi

    Let’s not forget that this article has absolutely nothing to do with William Gay. This is about Steve McLendon. I’m sure I will eventually write an article about Gay for you to respond to with caps lock activated. :D

  • SteelersDepot

    lol

  • charles

    Can’t wait to see Mac full time. On the William Gay debate I did not see any comments on how Rodgers went after him any time he needed a first down or clutch yards. Gay seemed to have trouble being able to turn and face the ball when he saw receiver telegraphing the pass in his direction.

    Matthew I have to say your writing is intelligent and well researched with stats. You are an excellent addition to the debate. It was you who defended Spaeth. While I still don’t care for Spaeth you presented a very good argument on his behalf.

  • Brendon Glad

    I liked Casey Hampton both as a classy Steeler in the mold of the ‘Steeler-Way’ which all of us hope the players exemplify…and as a guy who did his job quite well.
    BUT I did think that Casey Hampton was a bit one-dimensional and could be exposed if teams chose to throw on early downs. Granted his one-dimension was DAMN good….and I never will belittle that. And in fact, I’d rather have a guy on the field who is awesome at one-thing and poor at another, than one who is mediocre in 2….
    BUT if McClendon can just resemble Hampton in holding his own on double-teams against the run…then I think his ability to actually rush the passer may cause the more intelligent offensive coaches like Bill Bellichick or Mike McCarthy some problems. The best coaches watched Hampton, and if he’s on the field, you throw, throw, throw…and if he’s not…then that’s when you can mix in a few runs….hopefully McClendon will make that a more difficult decision.

  • Christopher Wilkes

    I’m really excited about McLendon this year, Hopefully he stays injury free and gives us a pass rusher at NT the entire season. I’m worried about the depth behind him tho. Maybe Hampton is staying in shape just incase.

  • Christopher Wilkes

    Knock it off!

  • Matthew Marczi

    One thing that I really love about McLendon that honestly kind of surprised me when I first heard about him, and that I think will go a long way in helping him take over the nose tackle position, was that he immediately embraced the tutelage of Chris Hoke. For almost his entire career, Casey relied on Hoke in many ways to be his eyes and ears, to know the Xes and Os and tendencies and schemes, and he would just go out there and let his natural abilities take over. McLendon embraces that mental aspect the way Hoke did, and that really impresses me.

    I remember one game a couple years back, it may have been that rough opening day loss to the Ravens, when Yanda and the other interior linemen broke out the cut block and took Hampton completely out of his comfort zone and he couldn’t adjust. Other teams started copying that after they saw how it affected him, but Hoke was the one who was able to adjust, so there were times that Hoke would play quite a bit if Hampton was struggling.

    I really think that is why McLendon will succeed. He knows that he’s not the strongest guy out there, nor the quickest, nor the smartest, but if he can strive to push himself to his limits in all three of those aspects of the game, he can create his own success being his own player. It really encourages me that he recognizes that as a player and that he’s committed to that mindset to be great.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Thanks, charles, I do sincerely appreciate everybody’s feedback. It’s still new to me to actually have an engaged audience reading my articles, and it motivates me. I’m really enjoying the fact that, for the most part, the responses to my articles have promoted some healthy, civil, informed, and insightful conversations, and I’m thankful to have been given the opportunity to express myself to such an audience.

  • steeltown

    …maybe because Clevelands secondary is set

  • steeltown

    I know.. I made the mistake of saying the ever ill-fated name of ‘William Gay’..its like he’s taboo, especially when involving optimism…

    I apologize ha!

  • steeltown

    Well said..love me some Hoke..hopefully McLendon can be just that

  • John A Stewart

    Banana head check out Gay stats from last year.

  • charles

    Odd that you say that because just as the 3-4 became prominent I had suggested to other Steeler fans that soon every down would be a blitz and it was only separated as to whether it was a pass blitz or a run blitz. Secretly I hoped that would not become reality because it would start to look like the Canadian Football League.

  • charles

    You see if Mac does as you say, it will cascade because the opposing offense will have to adjust leaving different advantages for our other people to make plays. I do believe that Hood is primed to blow up the scene. Hayword seems to have vestiges of a Jack Lambert attitude, if you recall his first camp he was getting into fights with ALL the Oline, so it is a distinct possibility that our entire front seven could be much more aggresive this year. Couple that with a well prepared secondary…..

  • Douglas Andrews

    hope were both right Charles if Hood and Heyward both step up with a much improved secondary we should at least get back to the playoffs then who knows maybe #7

  • hp

    From what Pouncey said, McLendon is really really strong.
    Pouncey once said he’s as strong as Casey.

    What a tradition of NT! Joel Steed, Hoke and Hampton.
    Steed, like Aaron Smith was one of the very best at his position but unheralded.
    Steed and Co. were a championship caliber defense for sure.