McLendon at middle of Steelers’ struggling run defense

November 6, 2013
New England running back Stevan Ridley scores a second-quarter touchdown against a Steelers defense that conceded 197 yards rushing enroute to a 55-31 loss Sunday. - Associated Press

PITTSBURGH – Having given up back-to-back 197-yard rushing performances, the Steelers have fallen to 31st in the NFL in run defense.

Nobody is angrier about that than the man in the middle of Pittsburgh’s defense, nose tackle Steve McLendon.

As the anchor of the Steelers’ defense, McLendon’s main job is to stuff the run. And because that’s not happening, well, McLendon is pointing a finger directly at himself.

“If you don’t take that personal, what are you doing here?” McLendon said.

The Steelers (2-6) allowed a 93-yard run to quarterback Terrelle Pryor on a read-option play to account for nearly half of the rushing yards they gave up in a 21-18 loss at Oakland two weeks ago. But in a 55-31 loss Sunday to New England, the Patriots didn’t have a run longer than 23 yards. The Patriots averaged 5.6 yards per carry.

McLendon, who was signed to a three-year, $7.25-million contract after Casey Hampton was not re-signed after last season, knew opponents would try to test him in his first season as a starter.

Few teams will do that more often than this week’s opponent, the Buffalo Bills (3-6). The Bills run the ball nearly 50 percent of the time and average 145.8 rushing yards per game.

Buffalo has used three different quarterbacks, but will likely be going back to rookie E.J. Manuel, who has recovered from a sprained knee. Manueal doesn’t concern McLendon and the Steelers as much as running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, who have rushed for 502 and 478 yards, respectively.

“We’re not thinking about anybody throwing,” said McLendon. “We gave up 55 points. People were running the ball on us. We’ve got to worry about stopping the run. We’re not worried about no quarterback. We’re worried about who’s running the ball.”

The Steelers’ defensive philosophy under coordinator Dick LeBeau has always been to stuff the run and force opponents into second- and third-and-long situations.

But with the Steelers struggling to stop the run, it’s made things more difficult for both the pass rush and the defensive backs. Pittsburgh has only 13 sacks, and New England quarterback Tom Brady repeatedly burned the secondary with play-action passes.

“When we have the run-stoppers that we’ve had here traditionally, people couldn’t run, no matter how many we had in the box,” said safety Ryan Clark. “Even if there were seven, they couldn’t run it. If there were eight, they couldn’t run it. Cornerbacks played the pass constantly. Safeties were able to stay deep. When you have problems stopping the run, other people feel like they have to come in and do different things. That’s when it gets hard.”

McLendon isn’t the only first-year starter in the front seven. Rookie Vince Williams has struggled replacing inside linebacker Larry Foote, who was lost in the opener with a ruptured biceps. And at outside linebacker, the Steelers have used a rotation of Jason Worilds and rookie Jarvis Jones in an effort to replace James Harrison.

As a result, Pittsburgh is giving up 131.8 rushing yards per game, its highest total since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger and more than twice the 62.8 yards per game it allowed in 2010, its most recent Super Bowl season.

The Steelers might never get back to the level of defense they played in 2010, but they can’t continue down their current road and hope to have success.

“You look at the guys here before me, Casey (Hampton), Chris Hoke, both of those guys did an excellent job of stopping the run, especially Casey. Hoke was extremely smart,” McLendon said. “Both did a great job stopping the run. They didn’t let anyone score 55 points on them.”

Odds and end zones

Williams and cornerback Ike Taylor missed practice Wednesday because of concussions. … Offensive tackles Kelvin Beachum (knee) and Marcus Gilbert (ankle), center Fernando Velasco (thigh) and tight end Heath Miller (coach’s decision) were limited in practice. ... The Steelers placed linebacker Sean Spence, who was trying to come back from a dislocated knee suffered in the 2012 preseason, on season-ending injured reserve.

Dale Lolley has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1993 after previously working at WJAC-TV and the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, and The Derrick in Oil City. A native of Fryburg, Pa., he is a graduate of North Clarion High School and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he earned a degree in journalism. He has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers since joining the Observer-Reporter in 1993, and also serves as the outdoors editor. He also is a radio host for Pittsburgh’s ESPN 970-AM, and serves as administrative adviser for the Red & Black, Washington & Jefferson College’s student newspaper.

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