Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
It appears the Steelers heavy investment in defensive ends in recent drafts may be an example of missed evaluations. Perhaps the team's zero technique nose tackle is currently their starting defensive end, and their projected nose tackle for 2013 should be playing on the edge.
The Steelers defensive line suffers from a mild personality disorder.
The symptoms are powerful players making finesse their key attribute and undrafted players finding themselves in fair comparison with first round picks.
Is this nature (players who developed a ton from age 22 to 27) or nurture (poor or inaccurate scouting evaluation)?
Whatever it is, it sums up the Steelers defensive line heading into the 2013 season.
If the offseason of 2012 was best characterized as a purging of veterans from the roster, 2013 is going to be best described as being rife with internal turnover.
Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette wrote Sunday the Steelers defensive line may be playing somewhat out of position. The pair of first round picks spent on defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward aren't busts as much as they're now fairly questioned as to which position they should be playing. Many of those questions are caused by nose tackle Steve McLendon, the undrafted developmental project who, come hell or high water, is going to need to be put on the field next year.
If Hood is, as Dulac described him, the strongest player on the team, and McLendon is drawing raves about his athleticism, then it's only fair to wonder whether McLendon is the replacement for likely departing nose tackle Casey Hampton.
By physical attributes, it should be Hood.
Hood played over the center in sub packages throughout the season while Hampton was a zero-technique in the base defense. Hood's ability to use his hands effectively keeps a top on the pocket while sub-package blitzes came from the outside - thus sealing off a quarterback's route of escape.
McLendon's best attribute seemed to be his ability to penetrate, regardless of where he was. While the defensive end in this 3-4 defense is used more to confuse and batter tackles and guards and open up lanes for unanticipated blitzers, nothing in the world beats penetration.
We may never know why McLendon played as infrequently as he did in 2012. One thought was concerns about his ability to play against the run from the zero technique. If that's the case, and he still managed two sacks and lots of pressure while playing less than eight snaps a game, why is he playing the zero technique?
The best 3-4 defensive end the Steelers ever had was Aaron Smith. In his best season - 2004 - it was his ability to get an advantage on the blocker or blockers assigned to stop him, and get a step or two into the backfield that made the Steelers' defense so dominant. That kind of consistent penetration shuts down a running game, and opens things up outside for other pass rushers.
It seems like McLendon, who's now about 15 pounds heavier than Smith was and just an inch shorter, could be best utilized on the edge, where he can use that explosive first step to draw the attention of the B gap defenders in unison with the nose tackle in order to collapse that side of the line.
Hood, on the other hand, is a powerful guy who doesn't play with power. He has the lower body strength to anchor himself on the line, but doesn't get a great push on the edge. He's a big guy, no one's mistaking that, but he's much more strong than he is athletic.
Heyward is the athletic of the two former first round picks. He's longer and has more explosion. There's a very realistic possibility we saw Brett Keisel (another model example of a 3-4 defensive end) play his final game in a Steelers uniform. Clearly, the team drafted the way they did to be in the position they're now in. Keisel earned the money he's made, but at some point, it will be too expensive.
Keisel was a seventh round pick. Smith was a fourth round pick. Hood and Heyward are currently nowhere near the level of Keisel and Smith when they were at their best, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're doing anything wrong.
While the starting three players on the Steelers' defensive line in 2013 may be Hood, McLendon and Heyward, it's fair to suggest a reshuffling of where those three players are lining up.
Ironically, maybe the miss in evaluation was on the first round picks more than the undrafted player.