During the lead-up to the Week 6 game vs. Jacksonville there was a good bit of discussion about a young man who had not figured largely in pre-game chatter prior to this. The reason was that Steve McLendon, third-string DT, was going to make his first NFL start because of injuries to the only two men to start for the Steelers in this position since 2001, Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke.
McLendon had received some number of snaps at the position since being brought in by the Steelers as an UDFA in 2009. He spent that year on the practice squad, and began there as well in 2010, but was quickly signed to the active roster. He first appeared in a game vs. the Titans, but spent several more short stints on the practice squad as the Steelers used him to move the injured QBs around during Ben's suspension. He was re-signed for the final time at the end of October of 2010 and eventually made cameo appearances in seven games last season.
He began the 2011 season on the active roster, and has played some snaps in all but one game. But an injury to Chris Hoke early in the Jacksonville game pressed McLendon into (more or less) full-time service in that game, and he was named the starter for the Week 7 match.
I wrote an article prior to that game about performance anxiety and what affect it might have on McLendon's game. What prompted the article was hearing Tunch Ilkin talk about his conversation with Steve after the Jacksonville game.
The remarks Tunch reported reminded me of the classic scene in one of my favorite movies, The Cutting Edge. Former hockey star-turned-figure-skater Doug Dorsey is about to skate onto the ice for his first competition, and as he and his partner wait to be called he suddenly excuses himself, skates behind a curtain, and vomits. His partner asks him what that was all about, and he replied that he was always nervous before games. She said "You'll be okay once we get out there, though, right?" He said that in ten minutes he would be fine. She hisses at him "Our routine is only two and a half minutes long!" Doug tells her "So, eight minutes afterward, I'll be okay" as they skate onto the ice.
My question was not whether McLendon would be fine after ten minutes on the field. Like the figure-skating routine, he was only likely to be on the field for short periods of time. If that was the case, it was really going to cost us, as the stop-and-go nature of an NFL game would assure that he would never get comfortable. The question was whether he could overcome the very natural nerves enough to play at a high level.
The article generated some discussion in the comments, as I had asserted that McLendon had performed pretty well against Jacksonville. The question ultimately became "when did Hoke go down?" Hoke wasn't taken off the field, and there was no announcement during the game. So I went back and watched the game to answer several questions: first, when did Hoke leave the game, second, did the run defense suffer substantially after that, and finally, was it possible to trace the path of McLendon's nerves by the results of the plays that he was in for? Here's what I found out. Since it does sometimes matter, I'll give the down and distance for all runs.
The answer to the first question appears to be that Hoke took his final snaps in the series that ended at 12:23 in the 2nd quarter. (This was much sooner than I thought he was out.) Up to that point the Steelers had given up the following runs: +1, (1-10) +3, (1-10) +5, (1-10) +4, (2-10) and +5, (1-15) for a total of 13 yards. All runs were by Maurice Jones-Drew. There were no runs for negative yardage—the runs listed were the only attempts.
During the remainder of the game McLendon played 23 out of the 39 snaps. 17 of those were rush attempts. McLendon was only in for the first two plays in the series beginning at 10:52 in the 2nd quarter, which was the Jaguar's next possession.
The results were not particularly promising. The first snap (1-10) resulted in a run by MJD of 19 yards. The next snap (1-10) resulted in another six yards for Jones-Drew. McLendon was pulled for the remainder of that series.
The next JAX series began at 3:56 in the 2nd quarter, and McLendon was in for two of the three snaps. The first (1-10) was a QB rush that gained one yard. Part of the reason that Gabbert had to take off was that his center got pushed into the backfield. McLendon then shed his man and was one of the players chasing Gabbert down. The second snap (2-10) was an incomplete pass. McLendon pushed the center back and two more guys came to help. Gabbert still got a decent pass off, but Farrior broke it up, and then sacked Gabbert on the next snap.
There was a final series in the 2nd quarter that was three and out. McLendon stayed on the sidelines for that series.
Jacksonville's first series in the 3rd quarter began without McLendon in the middle. The first snap was a stuffed MJD run. They brought McLendon in for the second one, (2-10) which resulted in an MJD run for 11 yards. There was a huge hole to McLendon's right (the run is officially listed as "left guard.") McLendon seemed to have contain on his guy, but Farrior missed the tackle. Or, more precisely, MJD shed the tackle and kept going.
McLendon was in for the next two snaps. The first one (1-10) was a stuffed run. The second (2-10) was an incomplete pass. He then left for the next two, which were a 3rd and10 and a 3rd and 20 (penalty repeat.) The ball should have been Pittsburgh's at that point, but then came the infamous failed punt block that gave the ball back to Gabbert and resulted in their only TD.
Beginning at 8:42 in the 3rd quarter, McLendon played all but three of the next twelve snaps. During the first snap (1-10) McLendon was pushed backwards, and MJD picked up 7 yards. The next (2-3) was a stuffed run. McLendon exited, and MJD picked up 6 yards on a 3rd and 3.
He was back for the next snap, (1-10) which resulted in an incomplete pass. McLendon took on two guys and then chased Gabbert upfield. The next one, (2-10) was a Karim run for a loss of a yard. McLendon left the field for the 3rd and 11 and Gabbert completed an 8 yard pass. McLendon returned for the remainder of the series. Jacksonville went for it on 4th and 3 and Gabbert ran a QB sneak. He had to slip by McLendon, who had shoved his guy into the backfield. Gabbert gained 5 on a QB rush.
The next set of downs (1-10) began with an MJD rush up the middle for 3 yards. McLendon was beaten on that play, and was out for the next snap, which was an MJD rush for 6 yards, also up the middle. He was back in for the 3rd and 1. It was Jacksonville's coup de grace—a Karim rush for 14 yards. However, it didn't appear to be McLendon's fault—he was engaged with his man well away from the enormous hole that opened up at left guard.
The last two snaps of that series were in the red zone. McLendon was in for both. The first (1-10) was a Karim run that lost two yards. Troy zipped into the backfield, and McLendon finished up a rather perfunctory Polamalu tacklette. The final snap (2-12) was a pass play. McLendon had gotten his man out of position and was on his way back to the QB (as was Larry Foote) when Gabbert got the pass off. Unfortunately it hit its intended target in the end zone.
The next Jacksonville series began at 10:43 in the 4th quarter. McLendon played all three snaps. The first (1-10) was a MJD run for 7 yards. McLendon seemed to have his guy under control, but once again there was a good hole next to the LG. On 2nd and 3 MJD got 2 yards, and on 3rd and 1 he was held to no gain for a three-and-out.
The defense was back at 7:13, and McLendon was on the field for the first three snaps. On the first (1-10) he shoved his guy into the backfield, which didn't prevent Gabbert from completing a 21-yard pass. On the next snap (1-10) MJD bounced off of Brett Keisel, then cut back and headed for the middle. He gained one yard before being tackled by almost everyone, including McLendon. On 2nd and 9 he held his guy, but there was enough of a hole for MJD to get 5 yards. He went to the sideline, and the next snap was a run, -2, followed by a FG.
There was one more Jacksonville series at 1:01 left in the game, but McLendon wasn't on the field.
First, here are the numbers. There were 30 total rushing attempts. Hoke was in for the first 5, and McLendon was on the field for 17 of the other 25. When Hoke was on the field the defense gave up an average of 2.6 per rush attempt. When McLendon was on the field they gave up an average of 5. The additional 8 rush attempts netted 34 yards, for a 4.25 average. Needless to say, this isn't an impressive number for McLendon. But what is revealing is to look at what points in the game he gave up those yards.
His very first series is when you would expect his nerves to be at their height. And indeed, the two plays he was on the field the defense gave up runs of 19 yards and 6 yards. That is almost a third of the total yardage the defense gave up during the time McLendon was on the field.
If we remove these two snaps from his total, his numbers are better. Now we're looking at 60 yards given up during 15 rush attempts, for an average of 4. This is nothing like as good as Hoke's numbers, but it is a bit better than the average when he wasn't on the field after Hoke was out.
Although some other longish runs were given up, not many of them appeared to me to be because McLendon got beaten. Since I'm not up on the subtleties of D line play, I may be missing something, of course. One thing I am probably not astute enough to pick up is whether the guys next to him are forced to split their attention or help him out. If so, presumably that would mean that the runs that were occurring down the line were allowed because someone else was not able to solely concentrate on his guy.
But in the end it seemed to me that McLendon's least successful snaps were when he first came on the field, either at the beginning of the game or after a long break. The only exception was late in the 9+ minute drive in the third quarter, when lack of game conditioning would have worn him out. Here's a further breakdown of the numbers:
Rush attempt results when McLendon was on the field: 85 total yards/17 attempts: 5 y/a average
Rush yards/attempt on first run attempt of series: 42/6, 7 y/a average
Rush yards/attempt on second run attempt of series: 13/5 2.6 y/a average
Longest run given up not on first snap: 14 yards (when defense had been on the field for 8:04)
We note that 49% of the yards given up when McLendon was on the field were given up during his first (run) snap of a series. (There were two series where the first snap was a pass attempt.) Those snaps represent just over 1/3 of the time that McLendon was on the field. In other words, a disproportionate amount of yardage was given up on those snaps.
It certainly looks to me as if the very natural performance anxiety that McLendon was experiencing impeded his ability to perform his best when he first came on the field for a series. The worst two snaps in succession he had were when he first came into the game—a 19 yard run was followed by a 6 yard run. At the beginning of the 3rd quarter his first two snaps were an 11 yard run followed by a run for no gain. Although the long break in playing time gave him the chance to work up a good set of nerves again, he got them under control much more quickly.
And let's not forget to give Maurice Jones-Drew some credit here. The guy is powerful, shifty, and a nightmare to bring down. You expect to give up a few yards to a guy like that.
So what implications does this have for some of the other young guys who are being forced onto the field by injuries? Are they equally nervous? Of course, we don't know that. It would certainly be surprising if they weren't, though.
"He was far from perfect but he played hard, played fast and wasn't afraid of competition," Tomlin said. "It was a good place to start."
The article mention Linebackers Coach Keith Butler's philosophy and how every player is expected to know every position in the 3-4 and to be prepared to play it.
"He makes corrections, he coaches (every position) and he makes sure that guys are the hybrid type and you're paying attention to everything," veteran Larry Foote said. "Even if it's your first day playing, he expects you to know it and that's the way he controls the room like that."
The author goes on to say that:
Butler, however, can't control nerves and both Carter and Sylvester know there will be some jitters if their names are called when the starters are introduced on Sunday night.
When the game begins those jitters better disappear quickly. Foote knows his young charges don't have a choice.
"The expectations don't change and they're going to learn in a hurry about this game," Foote said. "Preseason is one thing. Against the Patriots and the Ravens in the regular season it's totally different. But it's what guys have been doing their whole life."
If Steve McLendon's experience is any guide, it looks as if they will have a few bad moments, but settle down and play to the "standard." Whether it is possible at this point in their careers for them to actually play to the standard of the men they are replacing is another matter. Given that they are replacing a couple of Pro Bowlers, that seems to be asking an awful lot. Fortunately, we have a coaching staff that seems to have a pretty good finger on the pulse of their guys and will know how to best deploy them.
But they are on this team for a reason. The coaching staff saw something in them that led them to believe that they could be developed into Steelers starters. Sunday will show whether they can accelerate that development enough to withstand the "welcome to the NFL" that the Ravens will surely be prepared to give them.
[Note: You may wonder why I didn't analyze the Cardinals game instead, when McLendon was actually the starter. But there were far fewer rush attempts in that game, and the average was under 4 yards/attempt. I felt that the Jacksonville game would give us a better picture of the affects of performance anxiety. Hopefully the fact that McLendon apparently did better overall during the game he had a full week to prepare for is heartening news for the young linebackers.]