Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers Need A Nose Tackle To Optimize 3-4 Defensive Scheme

Oct 13, 2013; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon (90) attempts to chase down New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith (7) during the first half at MetLife Stadium. The Steelers won the game 19-6. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers have many needs to address this offseason, none more important than nose tackle.

The void left by longtime all-pro Casey Hampton has not been filled. Steve McLendon tried to take the spot, but he’s not a 3-4 nose tackle. He lacks strength to fit the system.

This does not mean McLendon should be cut, as he would be an excellent defensive end, his natural position. But fact is, returning Dick LeBeau‘s defense to the best in the NFL requires getting a 3-4 nose tackle.

This is easier said than done. Great nose tackles are very hard to find as they are the quintessential boom-or-bust position. Even if you do spend a first- or second-round pick on a nose tackle, more than half the time they are a bust.

The upcoming free-agent class won’t produce many nose tackles that could replace McLendon. The ones that could will be in high demand and a bidding war will break out.

The Steelers have been notoriously conservative in free agency and may have one or two splashes in them. Those will probably come at the safety and offensive line positions, not at nose tackle.

The Steelers have a big problem that cannot be ignored: they need to find someone to clog the middle of the defensive line. Nose tackle is the most important part of a 3-4 defense and it sickens me that it’s come to the point where Pittsburgh relied on a man in his late 30s that could retire at any moment and they didn’t get a competent backup.

Well, to be fair that’s not entirely true. General manager Kevin Colbert did draft nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu in the fourth round of the 2012 draft.

Unfortunately, he was terrible. He was cut during his rookie season and brought back later. After that, Ta’amu didn’t make the 53-man roster in 2013 and went to Arizona to be guided under former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

Realizing your heir apparent to the great Hampton is a complete bust definitely hurts, but where the Steelers went wrong was not getting a replacement.

They expected McLendon, an oversized 3-4 defensive end, to fill the void just because he was big. That doesn’t always work; you need a true nose tackle to run the scheme to its potential, and that’s just Football 101. McLendon isn’t a scrub by any means, but he isn’t a nose tackle.

This offseason, the Steelers have many pressing needs, but the biggest is nose tackle and it can’t be ignored any longer. In terms of who that NT could be, the truth is that no one knows. Some names have been thrown out such as Louis Nix of Notre Dame and Justin Ellis of Louisiana Tech, but they have some red flags that need addressing.

I’ll have a detailed report on both Ellis and Nix later, as my gut is telling me one of them will be selected by the Steelers.

Ideally, Colbert addresses this problem and the Steelers can continue taking steps to becoming a powerhouse like they once were.


What do you think? Should the Steelers pony up and sign a nose tackle, or should they draft one? Should they continue turning oversized defensive ends into nose tackles? Whatever your opinion may be, I want to hear it. Comment on the post and we can discuss.

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Tags: Casey Hampton NFL Free Agency Pittsburgh Steelers Steve McLendon

  • [email protected]

    Josh, GREAT article. I have been saying this since late last year and sorry but Louis Nix is NOT the answer. Besides Nix and Ellis, Ryan Carrethers (Ark St) and the kid from Tennessee, McCullers (like 370 lbs!!) could be the fit. Carrethers in particular is getting a lot of good press. You also mention McClendon at DE, so we’re really solving 2 problems with 1 pick, which is tough to beat.

    • Josh Svetz

      Nix has many positives and negatives, but I’m not comfortable with Nix yet till I learn more.

      Ellis is very intriguing and a first or even second round pick would not have to be used to acquire him.

      I’ve heard positives about Carrethers, however I need to research him a bit before I can say we should draft him.

      Size wise McCullers would fit the bill. However, he has some concerns with his ability to pass rush as he has 1.5 sacks in his whole career at Tennesee. He has a lot of raw skill, but he wouldn’t be able to be plugged in immediately, honestly, I don’t know if any of these guys could be, but I’ll look into each. I’m not excited about McCullers unless we bring in a free agent for cheap that fills the hole till he develops.

      Thanks for the Feedback!

  • Carl Eagan

    I like the idea and would prefer Carrethers they shouldn’t waste a first or second round on a 2 down player. The issue is McClendon although big and athletic hasn’t players or practiced at DE for years so there will be growing pains if he is moved outside. He does have the strength to take on the left tackle and free Jones up which would be good as we all saw Worilds play above himself once Heywood started dominating the right side of the offensive line.

    • Anthony Wayne Smothers

      Paul Soliai from the Dolphins, Terrence Cody from the Ravens and BJ Raji from the Packers could all help the steelers at the nose. Sign one of them and draft either Carrethers or Ellis in the draft

      • Carl Eagan

        Soliai is the best fit but going to be too expensive, Cody is a bust and changing locker rooms isn’t going to change that Raji is a possibility but we already have a lazy player in the name of Woodley.

        • Josh Svetz

          I agree that Solai is unreachable.

          I partly agree about Cody, he has tools to succeed its just the fact he is lazy and unmotivated.

          He relies too much on his size and doesn’t put in the work to improve. The Steelers could possibly get him in gear, but its not worth the risk.

          All Raji needs is motivation and he could be one of the best Nose Tackles, I think the Steelers staff and culture could motivate him and get him to reach his potential. He is the best option that could actually be afforded and would fit the system.

          Of course, knowing the Steelers they probably will just keep McLendon at Nose Tackle, but lets pray to god they bring in someone else!

      • Josh Svetz

        Cody is a huge risk, as he’s shown next to nothing at the defensive level. Signing him would be hoping his size can lessen his deficiencies and that he’s motivated and will get fit. Solai would be great, but he’s going to come at a price that the Steelers will not pay. Raji is probably the best option. He’s shown brilliance in Green Bay and all he needs is motivation to flourish.

    • Josh Svetz

      I think while there may be growing pains for McClendon, its not like he’s going to linebacker,he’s moving a few inches over to the left.

      He’s played the position before and he could take pressure off either Ziggy Hood or Brett Keisel who can’t play three downs.

      Also, like you said he would give Jarvis Jones freedom to attack the quarterback on blitzes.

      I’m not saying McClendon will be a pro bowler, but he’s a better option than Hood or Keisel.
      Thanks for the input.

  • David Dedo

    Not sure I agree with the 2 down player logic. If the NT does his job and the offense is in 3rd and long, is it bad that he’s a 2 down player? In fact, if our opponents keep ripping off 5+ yard runs, the NT will be out there a lot more often, and that won’t be a good thing.

    Football’s all about situations now. Many position players don’t have as many snaps as they used to, when offenses ran other systems. What happens when teams run 2 tight ends, or 4 wides, etc.? Someone’s not getting as many snaps at another position.

    Bottom line for me: I haven’t seen a championship caliber 3-4 defense that didn’t have an excellent (if not Pro Bowl level, close) NT. Can anyone name one for me?

    • Josh Svetz

      Maybe I’m misreading the situation, but I thought I made the “you need a great nose tackle” logic clear.
      I’m basically in agreement with you about that fact. I also don’t have a problem with a two down player IF he gets the job done.
      Thanks for the feedback but, I think you meant to reply to carl as I never talked about a Two down Nose Tackle in my article, if I’m wrong, ok.
      Regardless, thanks for reading and participating in the discussion!

  • David Dedo

    I was making some general observations about the NT in a 3-4 defense, responding in general to this whole thread.

    I’d still be interested in what others have to say on the issue, and I’m still wondering about great 3-4 defenses and the role/quality of the NT position.

    • Josh Svetz

      That’s what I assumed, haha.

      You bring up a good point, about successful 3-4 defenses having a great nose tackle. It would seem like it’s needed, but it’s definitely a topic to explore. I’m intrigued to say the least, I may have to look in to this.

  • Mike Cardwell

    McClendon has put up comparable stats to Hampton over his career and you won’t often hear a nose tackles name getting called on screen often. Some channels do like to pan in on the huge overweight guys for some reason though. I’m not a big fan of McClendons either but stats are stats. He just isn’t flashy enough for some people. That’s just the way it is with a 3-4 system. Hamptom had the big teddy bear Iikeability. That said I would rather see the Steelers go more 4-3 on third down. When they rush four guys and one of them is the extra outside linebacker on third and long in a passing situation the Outside linebacker always seems overmatched by the bigger tackles dropping back with help. At least a DE has some weight to at least put a little more pressure on the quarterback imo. So I’m definitely not for drafting Nix. The Steelers need to cut Taylor and use that money to draft or sign a corner.

    • Josh Svetz

      The reason the outside linebacker is overmatched is due to Ziggy Hood just not being starter material. Now, McLendon did put up some ok stats for a Nose Tackle, but it isn’t the type of stats needed to run a great 3-4 defense. Also, the issues at defensive end can be solved if McLendon is moved there. I think he would really open up the pass rush for Jones. I also am not a fan of Nix, for very different reasons though, but if the Steelers make the Verner move and Evans isn’t available he will probably be the pick. Also, its not that I’m not a “fan” of McLendon, I think he would do excellent at defensive end. He’s just not a Nose Tackle and I don’t think he will ever produce a probowl level season at Nose Tackle, unlike Hampton who had five. Those five Pro Bowls aren’t all from his likability, he had some great seasons and even if he didn’t get the tackle, he plugged the middle up. A Nose Tackle doesn’t need stats to be great. If the people around him elevate then he’s doing his job. That’s what Hampton did great and McLendon did not. If both defensive ends were productive and at least one player had double-digit sacks I wouldn’t be calling for a change. Obviously, this isn’t working, the last two seasons have been mediocre and change is needed, not just at Nose Tackle.
      Thanks for the feedback!

  • Ryan Smith

    What don’t you like about Nix? He is a beast when he is healthy. Don’t forget he was the anchor for ND when they made it to the National Championship. He is much more of a prototypical NT than Mclendon. I advise you to watch tape on him clogging up the middle and tacking on double teams.Think about this: If they draft Nix and he is healthy they have up front: Nix at NT, Mclendon(who is much mre of a DE) and Heyward(coming off a career year) with Jarvis Jones, Jason Worldis, Lawrence Timmons, and Vince Willams(make or break year upcoming) behind him.That 3-4 defense just improved at Nose tackle, improved at DE, and got younger all with one draft pick. Also with Nix stock dropping, they can trade down and still draft him along with another draft pick they get with the trade. This is a very deep draft; trading down should be fine.

    • Josh Svetz

      Where did I say I didn’t like Nix? I said Nix has red flags, the fluctuating weight is concerning from a health standpoint and the injuries. I’ve watched some tape on him and, he is good when healthy. I need to watch more to compare him to others players. I haven’t formed an opinion on Louis Nix yet. When I do, there will be an article about him as I stated in my post.

      Also. your point is valid, but look when this article was written… about a week ago. Many things have changed since then. I see a plan coming together especially with Cam Thomas being signed.

      • Ryan Smith

        I’m not sure if I’d be too excited about Cam Thomas. He got benched last year on a mediocre defense and apperently many people do not feel is physical enough to play NT in a 3-4 defense. He will add depth but I’m definately not depending on him to do much. He has the size but he has trouble getting leverage on O-lineman

        • Josh Svetz

          I have tempered expectations of Thomas. I wrote an article about him, but basically he’s a situational guy who adds depth.