It would be hard to argue that there’s a better candidate on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster right now to play nose tackle than Steve McLendon. After all, that is why the team signed him to a three-year contract last offseason.
And when all was said and done, the run statistics suggest that by and large, McLendon held his own when he was on the field. He may not have done everything the traditional 350-pound nose tackle method, but he got the job done.
I don’t believe the issue is necessarily whether or not McLendon the individual is capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of the nose tackle in this defense. To me, he’s already shown that he can handle it, with a bit of an advantage or disadvantage here and there depending on the situation based on his body type.
The real issue is not whether he’s the right man for the job. The issue is whether it’s the right job for the man.
Even though there’s, let’s say mixed agreement, on whether or not McLendon can handle playing nose tackle on a full-time basis based on last year’s body of work, I think it’s clear to most that the former undrafted free agent would in all likelihood be most successful playing the defensive end position.
That is, after all, where he started out in this league when the Steelers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2009. And that is where he played for his first few seasons, but he was forced to play nose tackle at times, most notably in 2011 when injuries to both Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke forced him to play significant snaps against the Arizona Cardinals and then start against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
McLendon doesn’t have the frame that forces offenses to regularly double team him with two offensive linemen, which is what Dick LeBeau likes his nose tackles to do. But what other option do the Steelers have?
The team’s backup nose tackle, Al Woods, is also primarily a 3-4 defensive end. The redshirt nose tackle Hebron Fangupo appears to be so far from being ready for John Mitchell that he seems closer to retirement than starting.
So unless the Steelers significantly address the nose tackle position this offseason, either through free agency (which is probably unlikely) or through the draft (which is certainly a possibility), it does appear as though McLendon will be forced to continue to grind out an existence at nose tackle, where he is not best suited.
Though he showed that he has the ability to add some bulk, even now McLendon is not a very physically imposing force in the middle of the defense, and that is why he rarely draws double teams. For an undersized nose tackle, it is even more important to demonstrate to the offense that they have to double team you, and he has not done that.
Taking that pressure off of McLendon by moving him to end opposite Cameron Heyward could very well be in his best interests. And if they can find a nose tackle, it might be in the team’s best interests as well, as McLendon could arguably be the best at the position on the team behind Heyward.
Granted, that theory is largely untested, given that he’s never actually even started a game at defensive end, even though he was able to be highly effective in his minimal playing time prior to starting at nose tackle this season. But where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire, as when Willie Colon was finally moved to guard in 2012.