By Alan Robinson
Was Steve McLendon good, bad or in between?
And do the Steelers really need to upgrade at nose tackle after just one season of McLendon starting there — and with two more seasons left on his $7.25 million contract?
Of all the Steelers’ starters, McLendon is the most enigmatic, at least in the eyes of the multiple evaluation services that assess NFL players’ performances.
McLendon, in his first season replacing long-time starter and run game-stopper Casey Hampton, played 355 snaps last season, or only about one-third of all those by the Steelers defense.
McLendon was given a positive grade by Pro Football Focus both as an overall defender and as a run defender. He ranked 33rd among all NFL defensive tackles, and 25th against the run, by a service that grades every player on every play, much like a player’s own position coach would do.
For comparison’s sake, Hampton ranked 77th among the 85 most-used defensive tackles, and 37th against the run, in 2012. Hampton was not signed after that season and did not play in 2013.
However, in McLendon’s first season on the nose, the Steelers plummeted from second against the run in 2012, allowing 90.6 yards per game, to 21st, giving up 115.6 yards. In comparing him to others at his position, Pro Football Focus judges him as “average, a solid starter.”
McLendon’s move into the lineup wasn’t the only reason for the Steelers’ falloff, and the worst performance they’ve had against the run with Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator.
They also missed linebacker James Harrison, who signed with the Bengals, safety Troy Polamalu was forced to play as an undersized inside linebacker at times following inside linebacker Larry Foote’s season-ending injury in Week 1; and first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones had an uneven rookie season at outside linebacker.
But, overall, the Steelers’ defensive line was better overall in 2013 than the season before; defensive end Cam Heyward became a playmaker and Brett Keisel was steady until getting injured late in the season. Ziggy Hood was about the same, but he yielded his spot — and quite a few snaps — to Heyward.
When I asked Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert about McLendon last week, here’s what he said:
“He did OK. He was OK,” Colbert said. “He fought through some injuries and gave us some good work. But, again, to say that anybody was good enough, including myself, when you’re 8-8, I think that’s a disservice to the organization.”
McLendon’s play is being judged more harshly by others. 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.
As multiple NFL analysts begin posting their mock drafts, quite a few are predicting the Steelers will take Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III with the 155h pick.
Such a pick would appear to be a reach for several reasons. One, Nix played only eight games for Notre Dame last season before needing surgery to repair a meniscus tear. Second, the Steelers would appear to have far greater needs at cornerback, safety, wide receiver and inside linebacker to take Nix — despite their struggles against the run.
With Ryan Clark likely leaving, the Steelers will be precariously thin at safety as Shamarko Thomas becomes a starter. And if Ike Taylor hasn’t already played his final game at cornerback — if he’s coming back, it’s almost certainly at a lower salary– he probably will in 2014. And that means another position that needs help in a hurry.
It’s also difficult to foresee the Steelers investing such an important pick on a defensive lineman after Colbert said that it’s their job to surround Ben Roethlisberger with weapons — and one of them, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, has been a virtual lock to leave via free agency since he failed to sign a multi-year contract last summer.
Nose tackle and run defense might be a concern, but the Steelers have far bigger ones in what is shaping up to be yet another crucial draft for a team that easily could go in either direction — back up the standings or further down them — in 2014.