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Steelers Film Room: The Steve McLendon Myth


By Alex Kozora

Throughout the rest of the offseason, we’ll examine specific plays from the Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 season. We won’t be focusing so much on individual play, though that inevitably comes with any breakdown, but instead, we will focus on concepts used in the pro game to show not just what happened, but why it happened.

This will be an X’s and O’s series focusing on both sides of the ball. The good and bad of the Steelers of last season.

Today, how the Steelers’ – chiefly Steve McLendon – beat zone blocking to stuff the Baltimore Ravens on third down.

Personnel: Tank (2 RB, 2 TE)

Defense: Base 3-4

Result: One yard loss

Although this series will generally be dedicated to the concept more than the player, this article will hit on both today.

When it comes to evaluating McLendon’s play, there’s a clear dichotomy between fans. Some were encouraged by his play last season while others don’t believe he has the size and strength to be a long-term option. For the latter, the signing of Cam Thomas only fanned that flame.

McLendon doesn’t have the “prototypical” size but it’s his athleticism that makes him a unique threat. That’s epitomized in the play below.

3rd and 1 for the Ravens on the Steelers’ 26. Baltimore doesn’t hide what they want to do. 22 personnel, the second tight end being tackle-eligible Ricky Wagner. Fullback Vonta Leach leading the way on this run. Still zone principles though. If both blockers are covered (defender over top of him), as they are on the far side, they man block. If the frontside blocker is covered and the backside uncovered, he doubles. With the odd front, the right tackle chips and then works to the second level. Let’s show the scheme below.

ZBS1_zpsbb1077ae

Via motion, the Ravens even smartly remove Troy Polamalu from the playside.

Defensively, each defender is responsible for flowing to their gap. Gap integrity is critical against zone schemes. Let’s breakdown who is responsible for each gap and draw it up below.

William Gay: “D/Edge”

LaMarr Woodley: “C”

Ziggy Hood: “B”

Steve McLendon: “A”

ZBS2_zps0fb0e2a7

That’s where it starts. If those three can’t do their job, the play falls apart.

Gay, Woodley, and Hood all do their job. They hold the point of attack well enough and clog up any running lanes.

Key here is McLendon. He does have the advantage pre-snap by being shaded playside. It’s that fact, coupled with his athleticism, that makes it such a difficult reach block for center Gino Gradkowski. He simply can’t get in front of the nose tackle and ride him down the line. McLendon gets off the ball in a hurry, gets his arms into Gradkowski, and slips past.

ZBS3_zps62260c6f

ZBS4_zps21df129c

There’s no chance for Bernard Pierce to cut the run back. With the frontside clogged, and the backside taken away, there’s no alley. Not only did McLendon take it away, he finishes the play with a tackle. The Ravens lose a yard and have to settle for a field goal.

ZBS5_zpsacdd7477

A potentially key play considering the Steelers won by just three.

Compare this to a similar play for Cam Thomas last year against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Thomas is unable to get into the backfield in time to bring down Giovani Bernard. It’s the left end, the  smaller, quicker Sean Lissemore who is able to run down the line and bring the back down.

That’s what McLendon brings to the table that your typical plugger will not. Thomas’ and Daniel McCullers’ slow first steps is partly what’s limiting their upside. You can be country strong, and those two are, but still get taken out of the play because you can’t move.

The Steelers’ will be facing zone blocking-heavy teams throughout 2014. The aforementioned Ravens and Bengals, Houston Texans, and Kansas City Chiefs. That’s six games alone off the top of my head.

As more teams adopt that scheme and ask their lineman to be smaller and quicker, defenses must do the same. It’s another reason why movement skills are in higher demand for defensive ends. Not just to rush the passer but work their way down the line against the run.

That’s why McLendon is valuable and why I’m excited to see him out there starting in the middle for the Steelers in 2014.

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  • mem359

    I don’t understand that Cincinnati play.
    The center ignores Thomas (who gets a free run, but takes a step to follow the QB instead of the runner), then doesn’t even block on the second level. If the center blocks the LB, or is a step slow and gets in the way of the left end, the runner might have slipped through for a few yards.

  • Steelers12328882

    Ehh to be fair I think McClendon was lined up closer to the direction of the play, and Cam looked to be held on his play.

  • srdan

    Alex, i really like when you do these breakdowns. You talk in lehman terms that I can understand. Thank you. How do you figure out which play to diagnose? Seems like you pick a quality of a player you want to highlihgt and then find a play? Just curious

  • Madi

    That was a great play by Woodley.

  • ApexSteel

    It wasn’t his block. The Center was supposed to chip block Thomas so the left guard could reach block him. Cam fought through the chip rather than going down the line with the center so there was no cutback lane for Bernard which you can see they were trying to set up because of the backside cut block and the wideout’s down block.

  • cencalsteeler

    Were used to seeing the quickness by McLendon, but I was actually impressed with Thomas on that particular play. He was 4 yards up the backfield when the ball was handed off. That tells me he’s quick off of the line even if he was just chip blocked.

  • dgh57

    I’ve always liked Mclendon for his quickness and athleticism for a guy his size and agree he should be in there because more teams are running the zbs. I remember seeing in another gif of Mclendon getting around Alex Mack so quick it made his head spin!

  • Joeybaggadonuts

    The key is penetration and skirting down the line so as to remove the cut back…it was actually a good play

  • David Hosmer

    that’s the first thing I saw on that GIF too. even after the breakdown on McClendon’s play, you see Woodley just blow up that play by manhandling that tackle.

  • lefnor

    Not too fair showing someone’s positives without his negatives. You are almost campaigning for the appretiation of McLendon. His movement skills are outstanding for a 325 pound NT, noone doubt that. He can reach the sideline very fast, which is very important against outside zone plays. But that’s not everything.

    NTs have to keep the LoS against double teams vs inside power running teams. McLendon wasn’t good at that: “Football Outsiders calls nose tackle the Steelers’ greatest position of need, based on McLendon’s average tackle following a gain of 3.0 yards, the worst of any starting tackle in a 3-4 defense.”

    You said “You can be country strong, but still get taken out of the play because you can’t move”. That’s right. But its inverse also: “You can move well, but still get taken out of the play because you can’t keep double teams”.

    McCullers was the strongest defensive player of the draft, who simply can’t be pushed backward. His release and chasing ability was not the best but after a strictly supervised offseason conditioning program maybe he won’t be too slow.
    I like strength (and size) much more at a NT than speed and I hardly wait to see McCullers’ shape at the beginning of the TC. He can be a special player at NT imo.

  • Bill

    Informative, clear breakdown of the play and McLendon shows his athletic skills. He’d be a good 4-3 tackle or DE. How does the author see him as the typical 3-4 nose guard and do you have GIFs of that?

  • SteelersDepot

    Please tell me that you see how silly of a stat that is.

  • charles

    21st in run and an 8-8 record and embaressing lack of takeaways says that we did not win the Dline of scrimmage last year. Mac shot the gap and his quickness was an asset here plus as you mentioned the Ravens did not hide their intentions. Mac is a good man, but our line needs a complement to Heyward if the Steelers D is going to be a playoff caliber complement to the O.

  • SteelersDepot

    This gif of an 18 yard run by Bell is proof of how silly that stat is. I suppose McLendon should have let someone else make the tackle so as not to destroy his average. http://twitpic.com/show/thumb/e5bbmp.gif

  • mem359

    I figured that was the case, but it wasn’t much of a chip block AND he didn’t block the LB.

    Even though Thomas isn’t as fast as McLendon, if he went straight for the RB instead of the stutter-step towards the QB, he could have gotten the tackle.

  • Dan

    Thanks Dave and Alex for giving us the best football info on the net!
    I don’t care about other teams enough to investigate this, but I’m sure fans of lesser teams don’t have anything close to the detailed analysis and football education we get here at Steelersdepot!

  • SteelersDepot

    As for your McCullers statement, this: http://twitpic.com/show/thumb/e5bd5s.gif

  • CBLater

    This series really is outstanding.

  • Alex Kozora
  • ApexSteel

    If he goes down the line to get the running back there’s a solid 3 yards or Bernard to use to cut back then it’s only him at the back side corner. His job wasn’t to make the tackle.

  • ApexSteel

    Oh god…

  • lefnor

    Long and short yard tackles equal each other. Other nose tackles have tackles like this too. Or you say that he is the worst because of his good chasing ability? C’mon.

  • lefnor

    Mitchell before the draft:
    „You look back at our season last year, up front I tell my three guys ‘you’ve got to eat up five guys.’ If we don’t do that the linebackers aren’t going to be able to make plays. We’ve had great linebackers here because the front has kept them free.”
    “If they double-team the nose tackle in our scheme, now they’re playing with nine and we’re playing with 10. What we have to do up front is make that ball go to the unblocked guy in our scheme. We didn’t do a very good job of that last year because the ball went north and south. We have to make the ball go east-west because we have the speed to run that ball down when it goes east and west.
    “When you let that ball go north and south on you, you’re not a very good front. We have to be a lot better up front.”

    So, who played poorly at the DL? Someone had to. The 4,2 y/c (or 4,3, but doesn’t mater) is in the books.

  • SteelersDepot

    “Long and short yard tackles equal each other.” ~ actually they don’t.

  • lefnor

    Throughout a whole season they do.

  • SteelersDepot
  • Douglas Andrews

    Say what you want about Woodley and the injures. But one thing that can’t be ignored is the way he set the edge on run plays.

  • SteelersDepot

    McLendon made 31 run tackles last year for an average of 2.87 yards past the LOS. You remove that one 18 yard run tackle and it drops it down to 2.37 yards. See how silly that stat is, yet? Just admit your bias and move on.

  • Barack Obama

    Wanna know what happens when these get into the wrong hands…

  • Xclewsive

    How many snaps did SMac take in sub package defense?

  • SteelersDepot

    Being as you are spouting stats, you must have missed the breakdown I did on this. You do realize that McLendon only played 208 snaps against the run last year out of 433, right?

  • Xclewsive

    McCullers did look bad but that was against two OL. The encouraging thing about it is that he was right back up.

  • Alex Kozora

    To put a number to that, just 10 of the 373 runs ended with a tackle by a DL 300+ pounds. That’s 2.7%. McLendon was the ONLY NT in the list, which I’ll put below, to make one of them. So he’s the only NT that got his number skewed to that extent.

    The list, in order.

    1. Desmond Bryant
    2. Suh/Fairley (same play)
    3. Jurell Casey
    4. Corbin Bryant
    5. Suh
    6. Marcell Dareus
    7. Fili Moala
    8. Suh
    9. Kendall Reyes
    10. McLendon

  • Xclewsive

    So there isn’t any film of any elite DL getting pushed back off the line in college? Just nitpicking a few plays out of many. I’m not saying that McCullers is good just that all players have moments. I understand that somebody use his size and strength as a point, but pointing out flaws in a 6th rounder is stretching it.

  • SteelersDepot

    McLendon was in on defense on 208 running plays last season. 204 of those plays resulted in a 2.79 yards per carry average. The other four resulted in a 57.75 yards per carry average.Carry on with your witch hunt.

  • Alex Kozora

    No one is nitpicking. Dave and I have watched a lot of him, not just a few plays. My full report on him is on the site. But obviously, no one is going to be able to have an entire breakdown in the comment section. These are just examples to illustrate our point.

  • Alex Kozora

    Thanks, much appreciated. I’ve just combed back through my game notes and made a list of plays I mentioned but never went full in-depth with. Ones that are interesting to talk about schematically. So I have a big list I”m working off of. If I need anything else, I’ll just throw on a couple games and see what else sticks out to me.

  • Alex Kozora

    It’s not to say Thomas had a horrible play. He did his job. My point was Thomas lacked the quickness to bring down the runner, unlike McLendon. Any DT is going to get into the backfield with a wide open lane like Thomas did.

  • lefnor

    So you can’t show those few positive plays I cut from 3 or four of his games? What was the problem with that?

  • Alex Kozora

    Positive plays are in my breakdown of his. Anyone can go back and check them out. In fact, I think I had more positive examples than negatives in mine.

  • lefnor

    Why should I admit and what? Remove the highest number. Yeah, stats are working that way. If a NT have three 10-yard tackle? What do you remove than? This is ridiculous.
    We have a disagreement. Thats it.

    McLendon wasnt good against the inside runs and double teams, that was my point and you can’t convince me about its opposite. These sideline tackles are not enough for that.

  • lefnor

    Yes, and this was a tiny comment, not your analysis. Not with the same plays. After you linked that very bad play i tought McCullers’ image deserved those plays.
    I finished commenting here.

  • lefnor

    Yes, and if you don’t count the 8 losses, the Steelers had a perfect season. Lol.
    I wrote earlier that my comment’s main point was not that stat. It was that McLendon is not enough strong vs double teams and can’t hold the LoS.
    Carry on with your “McLendon is actually a good NT” project which is simply not true.

  • Alex Kozora

    Taking it one step further, of the 1398 non-scoring runs that went for 10+ yards, only three (including McLendon) were made by a nose tackle. The other two were 14 and 11 yards by Dontari Poe and Haloti Ngata respectively. That comes out to .21% of tackles. It’s pretty unfair for FO to hold that against McLendon in creating that stat and undoubtedly skewed his number.

  • chris ward

    McLendon is great against zone blocking, has great footwork and lateral movement.

  • http://suspect5.bandcamp.com/ HardPunkKore

    I love how everyone agrees with yours and Dave’s breakdown posts until you try to defend #90 or #22 then all you get is hate when you make clear cut good points. Its actually kind of rediculous really. Like after a bunch of good post you all of a sudden suck and you don’t have a clue what your doing.

    Like all these others guys get paid to watch film and evaluate players. They are so good at it, try and put a team together, maybe they join the Bucs and lions by fielding winless teams…

  • SteelersDepot

    You have proven nothing. In fact, we have proved all of your claims to be false. It is clear you are merely trolling now.

  • SteelersDepot

    This is exactly right. You would think that people think we are related to the two of them and that this site was created to only defend their honor. If they sucked, we would tell you they sucked. People hate having their agendas and lack of knowledge of their play exposed when it comes to these two. we make no extra money for defending either.

  • Matt Manzo

    What’s key for me is that Big Mac is still developing! I’ll reserve judgement for next year. And it’s new for us to have someone with his athleticism at NT, too. For the first year starting with a pretty porous defense, I think Mac did alright, and I’m expecting him to improve.

  • Madi

    Nonsense. Plenty of people ignored it.

    I agree. The injuries left us little choice but to cut him, but he was always great on the field. Even if he had a sack dry spell, he was always great on the field. I’m not even a huge fan of his in particular. I just think he gets a bad rap from too many of his own team’s fans.

  • HecklerSpray

    The piece would have a little more weight if it came against someone other than the worst center in football. The Ravens are using that same sequence to show why Gino Gradkowski isn’t going to be a center next year.

  • IckyD

    The fact that he was out of shape, overweight, oft-injured and simply incapable of playing up to his salary-level far outweighed the fact that he was/is an above-average OLB any time he was on the field.

  • http://batman-news.com MC

    I saw that a few times last season. Whilst Mclendon can’t anchor and occupy two blockers like Hampton, he can rush better and chase down the RB from the backside quite well. With Mclendon’s athleticism, i can really see him playing NT or end.
    Hopefully McCullers comes through and can provide the plugger role in heavy formations if needed.

  • http://suspect5.bandcamp.com/ HardPunkKore

    You can lead a horse to woter but you can’t make hime drink.

  • http://www.amazon.com/The-Sibyl-Reborn-ebook/dp/B009KNQHSM James P. Kelly

    The trouble with 2.79 yards per carry is what if it was third and two or fourth and goal from the one?

    Those who think Steve is a good NT and those who think he’s a solid 3/4 DE who’s out-of-position can argue till the cows come home, and it won’t matter if Tomlin and Mitchell like where he’s at. However, it will matter very much if our 2014 opponents study the tapes and learn that Steve can’t stonewall double teams or that centers can handle him one-on-one consistently in specific situations. I’m NOT saying that this IS the case–I’m saying that IF anything like this occurs and the Steelers don’t identify it first (or if they deny its implications), we might again be handcuffed by starting 0-1, 0-2, or worse, before they try something else. Whatever Steve brings to the table, the coaches need to face his upside and flaws with professional, unbiased clarity–or they’ll be to blame, not Steve, if things go south because teams attack him effectively at crucial moments.

  • Jeff Burton

    This is an incredibly astute breakdown Alex. I write the ‘Armchair GM’ tm. for the Pittsburgh-Blitz. I’d like to share this on our FB page. Given what you’re seeing how do you think the Cam Thomas, Steve McClendon line position issue will shake out? McClendon staying in place, maybe alternating?

  • IckyD

    In the new pass-first NFL speed-strength guys like McClendon will become the rule at the NT rather than exception, with the “bigs” like Heyward, Cameron, McCullers, Arnfelt etc. being used at the edges to close off passing lanes w/high hands [like the man who wrote the book on batting down passes- Brett Keisel] and who match up physically with OTs length, strength and agility so they can nullify them as pass-blockers and can “set the end” against outside runners while freeing up pass-rush lanes for our fast LBs. It is Coach LeBeau’s old run-stop scheme, except w/the speed inside to ruin pass timing.

    Speed to the QB is the new name of the game; stopping the run is now secondary.

  • Alex Kozora

    Feel free to link/share, Jeff.

    McLendon will remain at nose tackle. Thomas will primarily be an end and I pray he won’t be a full-time starter. I think Keisel will be re-signed and open the season as the starter. Tuitt will rotate in at right end. Thomas will play both spots sparingly.

    All but Thomas will come in on subpackges.

  • Steve

    Steelers are going with what they got. Will be a fight between Thomas, Dan and Tuitt for right end spot and Tuitt will get the most snaps between the 3 of them. Great job on this Article. Enjoy the breakdowns and Gif’s as the play progresses. Mac and Heyward will play on the line in the nickel and dime sub packages.

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    Alex,
    I hope you are right about Mc. At 6’4″ and 320 lbs his body build seems to scream prototype DE in a 3-4.
    I don’t think he was bad last year as NT – quite the opposite. BUT, I think he could be better as a 3-4 DE, especially given his pass rushing ability.
    Moving Mc to DE would allow Thomas and McCullers to split time at NT eventually (not advocating putting McCullers in until he’s NFL ready).
    We’ll see…..

  • Xclewsive

    Not disputing about how much film is watched because I know I don’t invest half as much time. Don’t let my last post be misinterpreted as I’m defending McCullers and down playing SMac. SMac gets a ton of flack for things that were out of his control and fans are getting overexcited about a 6th round project. But personally projections of McCullers talent is like saying AB a fellow 6th was destine for greatness. Only time will tell!

  • Andrew Win

    i agree

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