Despite the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers have given up a wealth of yardage on the ground over the course of the past two weeks—nearly 400, in fact—it is my belief that the primary culprit behind this issue is not Steve McLendon and the defensive line.
The inside linebackers this season have struggled significantly to hit the holes, including Lawrence Timmons, whose uncharacteristically poor season in certain areas may be attributable to the players flanking him.
Rookie Vince Williams has had some moments, but he and Timmons do not have the chemistry that Larry Foote had. Additionally, Timmons was used to having one of the best 3-4 outside linebackers against the run. Now he has to deal with a platoon of Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones, the latter of which has had to be reprimanded for his lack of polish on assignments. The secondary also certainly had its issues against the run.
This is in no way, of course, an exoneration of McLendon, or anybody else. They certainly have had their issues, such as allowing the secondary to be in the position of needing to make a tackle seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage. It is worthwhile, though, to highlight some of the positive work that the young starter is putting in against the run as he continues his upward trajectory on the team and in this league.
The first play that comes to mind, of course, is the goal line stand early in the game on fourth and one. McLendon beat the center badly off the snap and imposed his will. He likely would have single-handedly made the tackle had he not tripped over Logan Mankins’ foot. As it was, he helped trip up Stevan Ridley, who was finished off by Troy Polamalu for a loss.
The feet of Mankins would prove to be a nemesis preventing McLendon from finishing off individually impressive plays, as the above further attests. Once again, the nose tackle easily rode the center off the snap, and likely would have brought down the back for a solo tackle had he not gotten tangled up, though his efforts contributed to just a one-yard gain on first down.
When not battling his feet, McLendon had success against the formerly excellent Mankins. On this occasion, he fairly easily shed the offensive guard’s block to make the tackle on another short gain.
Of course, the New England Patriots spent most of the past game rushing the ball around the edges rather than up the middle when facing the base defense of the Steelers. Here is what it is supposed to look like with a disciplined defense and quality play from the nose tackle:
Even though Brett Keisel ended up being taken down, the play on the back end, as well as the discipline by Timmons and Worilds, prevented the back from finding a crease. Once again, McLendon won his individual battle against the center and helped force Ridley to retreat behind the line of scrimmage as he and Worilds dropped him for a loss.