The Optimist’s Take – Light Nose Tackles

For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect  the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.

Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.

Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.

In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.

Question: Can the Steelers afford to continue to do without a traditional nose tackle?

The Steelers conducted a bit of an experiment last season when they parted ways with longtime nose tackle Casey Hampton, who was about as traditional as a 3-4 nose tackle can ever get.

That experiment was to see if they could still be effective by putting a couple of defensive ends on a fat man’s diet and playing them in the middle of the defensive line. The end results send some mixed signals.

While the overall performance of the defense was certainly lacking, and more to the point when it comes to nose tackle, the run defense was at times worryingly porous, it’s not so simple as to just say that it was because they ‘don’t have a nose tackle’.

In fact, as we have detailed before, the opposing yards per carry when running up the middle against the Steelers’ base defense was more than respectable, which would suggest that Steve McLendon, and occasionally Al Woods, generally held their own in the trenches, despite the belief by many that they are too small for the position.

So why the seeming urgency by certain sectors of the media, and the Steelers’ fan base, to replace McLendon? After all, much of the success that opponents found on the ground came around the perimeter and as the result of missed tackles, exacerbated by the issues of rookies playing on defense.

Yet a large portion of mock drafts continue to have the Steelers taking a nose tackle in the first round, under the assumption that he’ll be the next Hampton, settling the position for the next decade and bringing the run defense to prominence again.

While McLendon may never clog the middle of the offensive line quite the way a more traditional nose tackle can by consistently drawing and navigating double teams, he did show that his athleticism and mobility allows him to play the run effectively on his own. It also allows him to be more effective as a pass rusher.

The same can be said of Woods, who started two games at nose tackle last season and spent the offseason practicing as the second-team nose tackle ahead of Hebron Fangupo and Alameda Ta’amu.

Both McLendon and Woods still have room to grow, and I believe the defense can be just as effective, though perhaps in slightly different ways, with those two centering the defense, as long as the rest of the defense does a better job of holding its own after missing more tackles than any year in recent memory.

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • 20Stoney

    It looks like they should have kept Ta’amu over Fangupo last season.

  • Luke Shabro

    I like Stevie McClendon more than most and I realllyy like Al Woods. I’d prefer, if they do grab a NT, wait until later on in the draft. Nix seemed liked a funny, good natured kid, just don’t think he’s worth 1.15 . I’d rather have Mosley, Clinton-Dix, Gilbert, Benjamin, Ebron, Evans or maybe even Prior over Nix

  • steeltown

    I think they should re-sign Al Woods and keep Fangupo around for one more training camp to see if he has progressed. They made their bed by moving on from Ta’amu.

    The situational stats show that McLendon does his job in the middle, I see no reason to spend an early draft pick at NT… atleast not this year

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Exactly my stance as well. The Steelers are probably leaning the same way.

  • pat

    Im ok with drafting a NT early because I truly believe McLendon is better suited to be a DE and in fact with him and Heyward at DE I think would be great. Im thinking we let Hood walk sign Keisel to a low 1yr contract. Its just hard to predict the ddraftat this time with FA 1st but by the end of March we should have a better idea on the direction the team is going. IMO we will address one of the def needs ( cb. olb. s. ) thru FA and use draft for other needs. I just hope we keep LaRod and Dwyer and dont waste a pick on a RB

  • Callentown

    I’ve always seen that teams who are strong up the middle are the toughest to play against. With Casey Hampton, we saw that. New England with Wilfork too.

    I see Mac getting moved out of the path at times. This is why I think the Steelers need a bigger, lower center of gravity NT.

    I don’t have any feelings towards Nix one way or the other. But he’s rated as the top DL by every analyst with a 91/92 rating, so I don’t think he’s as terrible as everyone says.

    I’d prefer Mosley or a DB, but wouldn’t be surprised if we see a D-Lineman in some form.

  • Callentown

    Have a feeling we may see a late round speed back taken.

  • shawn

    would much rather have Archer or even DAT then keeping LSH

  • cencalsteeler

    Dave has pointed out to us that McClendons stats are very reputable. His supporting cast is what needs help. Williams second season should help stuff the run a little more. Getting Troy back to his natural ss position should help as well. Clark used to come up and contribute on running plays and we all know this last season he was almost nonexistent. It’s easy to point the finger at Steve because he doesn’t look the part or fit that mold were used to seeing. Problem is, we are focused on McClendon when I think we need to pan out more to find the problem.

  • James Kling

    Not.
    Ta’amu fits the 4-3 better.

  • 20Stoney

    If I remember correctly, one of the knocks against him coming out was that he was strictly a 0-1 technique. I didn’t see anything in his time here to make me think otherwise. Fangupo appears to be the same, but will be 29 years old, doesn’t get on the field and has no apparent upside. With the exception of staying out of trouble, what do you see in him that you prefer?

  • James Kling

    Based on measurables, Ta’amu should fit as a 3-4 NT. But when I was looking at him for the 2012 draft, I was unimpressed with his tape against Utah – no push, not even vs. single teams, just did not command the POA the way you want a 3-4 plugger to. Seem to remember an interview where he had trouble identifying whether he played in a 30 front or a 40 front, so I had questions as well about mental acuity. Ta’amu showed me nothing here, but seemed to flourish once he was plugged in at DT in Zona’s 4-3.

    While Fangs is older, and generally you want to skew younger, my impression was that he had the frame and measurables to be considered at NT, but he was also a high character guy with a lot more going on upstairs. Assuming his age is due to BYU ministry, so that’s not NFL or collegiate wear and tear. Fangs showed some flashes of being a solid 3-4 NT, but seemed to wear down at BYU as the season progressed, so he’s definitely a developmental guy. I don’t know that he’s got a ton of upside, but my hope is that with some experience under his belt he can at least be a Chris Hoke type player (also older, also smaller than Hampton, but solid functionally).

  • dkoy85

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see Colbert and co. draft a DE first round if they don’t resign Hood.

  • Matthew Marczi

    They *have* been very active in meeting with some of the top 3-4 DE prospects at the combine. It wouldn’t surprise me, but I’d prefer if they not take that route.

  • PA2AK

    I agree. Really liked the stats given by Dave with McClendons performance against the run. I like big Mac and think he has more room for improvement. He is athletic and strong…just needs more time in the trenches of actual games. I really don’t think last year even gives us a really solid look at what he can do. The guys first year starting had sub packages in there nearly half the time. I’m looking for him to improve on last year…at this point, that’s good enough.

    While I like Nix and he might be a great player…I think we are wasting a shot at some real talent that fills immediate needs on this team. With Mac and Woods…I can’t see the FO panicking to grab a NT. I could see them looking at a mid-late round DE, though. I think we will see a CB and S before we see anything picked from the DL….or at least I hope! (I’m also warming up to the selection of a WR @ 1.15…especially one of these big bodied guys).

  • PA2AK

    I swear I saw something before that had LeBeau mentioning a smaller (than Hampton) NT with more athleticism is actually his ideal NT. Anyone else remember this? or am I delusional?

  • Patrick Reid

    Yes Lord!!!!

  • Patrick Reid

    Wanted Archer since last season and then he decided to stay in school. DAT, nuff said. John Brown from Pitt St. could be a similar option late.

  • Ben Anderson

    Ta’amu played over 250 snaps at NT last year in AZ and graded well.

  • ATL96STEELER

    I’m more in line with this thinking also but I would still spend a pick on a guy at some point in this draft…Fang not being able to see the field at all is concerning.

  • James Kling

    Yeah, in a 4-3 front. Like I said, not a fit with the 3-4, never was, never will be. Wasted pick.