Despite playing just 139 snaps during the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2012 season, young defensive lineman Steve McLendon earned a reputation as being one of the team’s most exciting young players. Despite the excitement amongst the franchise’s fans, the coaches on the sidelines never really bought into McLendon.
Some wondered if they were trying to sneak McLendon through restricted free agency this year, but that notion was dispelled as soon as the team gave him the lowest possible tender. Because McLendon was undrafted in 2009, he won’t cost any potential new suitor a draft pick.
Of course, the fact that the Steelers are so comfortable with the idea of losing McLendon and didn’t use him while he was around should mean that no other team would have an interest in signing him to a sheet. At least, that’s the logical take. However, there has been little logic to the Steelers’ off-season so far this year.
The perception of McLendon is off somewhat. He is very talented, but he is not all that young. Even though he has only been in the league for three years and started just one game during that span, McLendon turned 27 in January of this year. Still, presuming he is ready to play and has developed under the guidance of the Steelers’ coaching staff, he should be able to at least contribute this coming season.
Even in his limited time on the field, McLendon ranked as the Steelers’ fifth best defender according to Pro Football Focus, with no negative grades. His 7.0 overall grade was better than every single offensive player on the Steelers’ roster outside of Ben Roethlisberger also. On just 73 pass rush attempts as a defensive tackle, he managed three sacks, two quarterback hits and two quarterback hurries.
Because of his lack of time on the field, McLendon is still somewhat unknown. However, he has already shown that he can be stout at the point of attack and maintain double-teams in a limited role, while his pass-rushing potential is very high.
McLendon came out of college as a 6-4 ,280 lb prospect, however his physical traits have significantly improved since he became a professional. If McLendon is still 280 lbs, very little of that weight goes to waste. He has the body type that will allow him to play either 3-4 nose tackle or defensive end, which when combined with his skill-set, shows why the Green Bay Packers are flirting with the idea of signing him.
The Packers and McLendon are visiting with each other currently. With the Steelers’ cap situation, they could easily steal him from under their noses. Ted Thompson doesn’t often make many free agent moves, so when he does it is notable. Even with this visit, he has seen the side of McLendon that Steelers fans have been boasting about for some time and the coaching staff has been ignoring.
McLendon’s first sack of the season came against the Philadelphia Eagles. He initially lined up as the nose tackle in the Steelers’ amoeba package.
At the snap, McLendon didn’t explode off the line, but he kept his head up and immediately had his arms extended in anticipation of the offensive line trying to get their hands on him. The Eagles’ right guard and center don’t communicate properly as both are looking in opposite directions.
McLendon recognizes this instantly and fights off their attempts to recover position before using his speed to track down Michael Vick in the pocket.
In Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns, McLendon again showed his ability to shoot gaps in the offensive line despite his size. McLendon made Alex Mack, one of the best centers in the league, look ordinary on this play.
McLendon explodes off the ball and Mack initially struggles to locate him. By the time Mack is looking to recover, McLendon is already pushing past him and Mack’s feet aren’t quick enough for him to recover position.
Just like he did against the Eagles, McLendon absorbs the attempted recovery from the offensive lineman before using his speed to brush by him and head towards the quarterback.
Although Thad Lewis, a very athletic quarterback, tries to escape his grasp just like Vick did, McLendon does enough to get him to the ground as he shifts his momentum to chase him down.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals a week before the Browns game, McLendon showed off his power against Kyle Cook. McLendon again lined up at nose tackle right over the center.
Unlike Mack did in the previous play, Cook gives ground after snapping the ball in order to set a strong base and absorb any potential power move from McLendon. McLendon is very active however and forces Andy Dalton to readjust in the pocket before he overpowers Cook and shares the sack with a teammate or two.
McLendon is a very aggressive and active defender with the physical tools to succeed at this level. The real question is why the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t play him more often in 2012, not why are the Green Bay Packers interested in signing him.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf