When the New York Jets had some time off following an early-season Thursday night game last month, Steve McLendon could have chosen to hole up at home and rest. He could have taken a vacation. He could have visited family.
Instead, McLendon was spotted in, of all places, an upcoming opponent’s locker room.
With McLendon having signed as a free agent with New York this past spring after seven seasons as property of the Steelers, his love of his (now former) team and his (now former) teammates became that much more apparent.
Antonio Brown, for example – an offensive player who had a locker on an almost polar-opposite side of the Steelers’ locker room from McLendon – was palpably elated to see McLendon last month. Brown’s eyes lit up and he interrupted an interview mid-sentence to yell, “STEEEEVE!”
Sunday, McLendon’s Jets come to Heinz Field to play the Steelers. McLendon doesn’t know exactly how he’ll feel as a visitor in Pittsburgh – but he knows he’ll feel something deep.
“There’s gonna be a lot of emotion,” McLendon told reporters in New York this week. “They’re gonna play with emotion, we’re gonna play with emotion.
“I’m gonna play with emotion.”
McLendon emphasized that he’s happy to be a Jet – and why wouldn’t he be? He’s playing about twice as much (69 percent of New York’s defensive snaps as opposed to 34 percent of the Steelers’ defensive snaps last season) and is part of one of what is considered to be one of the best defensive lines in the game today. McLendon’s two sacks in four games with the Jets almost matches what he had in six seasons (five sacks) with the Steelers.
But that doesn’t mean he’s lost his reverence for the Steelers’ organization, which signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Troy in 2009 and let him develop behind then-Pro Bowler Casey Hampton at nose tackle. McLendon was cut five times his first three seasons as he bounced around from the practice squad before becoming a starter following Hampton’s retirement in 2013.
“That ‘Steelers’ name speaks for itself; they’ve got six rings and they’re trying to get a seventh,” McLendon said. “They know the goal; I know what their goal is — but their goal is what our goal is.
“I owe everything to them, props for bringing me in and letting me play there for the past seven years. But I have moved on; I’m a New York Jet now, and I’m excited to take the field against these guys.”
McLendon said he’s shut off communication with his ex-mates this week. They’ll share a pregame handshake or a postgame hug. But, as he said, “It’s business.
“It’s nothing personal. I love them, and they still love me. But the thing is there’s a game on the line. We’re both trying to get a Super Bowl – you don’t want to get any mixed emotions or feel like you’re giving them an edge or a hand up or anything.”
One of the Steelers players McLendon does not have a longstanding relationship with is his successor at nose tackle, Javon Hargrave. The Steelers took Hargrave in the third round to be their third nose tackle since 2001. He’s come in and immediately started and performed to mostly rave reviews.
“I wouldn’t say I’m satisfied,” Hargrave said, “but I feel I can be better and do things better in my own technique-wise. But I feel like I am improving every game – and that’s the main thing I’m trying to do.”
Throughout the summer, Hargrave watched film of McLendon to get a grasp of what his responsibilities are in the Steelers’ defense. He even met McLendon when the latter was in town. “He’s a cool dude,” Hargrave said. (Incidentally, while he’s never met Hampton, Hargrave incredulously said, “Of course I know who Casey Hampton is” – Hampton’s reputation and notoriety for his proficiency at his position is that great).
What’s interesting about the using an asset valued as high as a third-round pick for a nose tackle is that the Steelers’ logic two months prior for letting McLendon walk was that it wasn’t worth investing heavy resources into a position that is only on the field about a third of the time.
McLendon is playing 2/3 of the snaps in what is a four-man front with the Jets. Four games into his career, Hargrave has played less than a quarter of the Steelers’ defensive snaps – but if you add in Dan McCullers’ work (12 percent), it’s roughly still a third of the game.
More importantly, though, Hargrave was sought after in the draft because of his ability to play end in nickel packages (as McLendon did on occasion for the Steelers) at a high level. He did that as a pro for the first time this past Sunday against the Chiefs.
Even if the traditional, run-stuffing nose tackle role continues to be diminished, if Hargrave can do that plus spell stellar ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt without the Steelers missing a beat, his value is more than commensurate with that of a third-round pick.