Michael Nania’s New York Jets 2019 season in review series stays on the defensive line but now focuses on Steve McLendon.
Steve McLendon went undrafted out of Troy in 2009, before signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Age was a part of the slip, as McLendon was nearly 24 years old at the beginning of his rookie season, but the Alabama native had the potential to become a decent nose tackle in the NFL with his mammoth 300-plus pound frame.
After spending his rookie year on the practice squad, McLendon cracked the Steelers roster in 2010. He carved out a nice career in Pittsburgh, playing in 79 regular-season games and six playoff games over six seasons with the team. He developed into one of the better pure nose tackles in football, missing only three tackles throughout his entire Steelers tenure while consistently grading out as one the best run defenders in the league. Per Steelers Depot, the Steelers gave up just 2.31 yards per rush with him in the game during the 2015 season.
The New York Jets signed McLendon to a three-year, $10.5M deal prior to the 2016 season, adding him to a stacked defensive line that already featured Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Leonard Williams.
McLendon saw substantially more playing time in New York than he did in Pittsburgh. McLendon averaged 31.2 snaps per game with the Jets from 2016-18, while his career-high as a Steeler was 27.5 in 2014. He was a tremendous asset over his first three seasons, continuing to bring the same elite run defense that he brought to the table in western Pennsylvania.
The Jets re-signed McLendon to a one-year, $2.5 million deal prior to 2019. Given his level of play over the previous three seasons, bringing back McLendon at that price was a no-brainer. The only question mark was his age, as 2019 would be McLendon’s age-33 season, but with just the one-year commitment, it was an obvious move for the Jets to make.
All the Jets needed out of McLendon was some more of the same. Off the field, it is a given that he is going to give your team some tremendous veteran leadership, which he is often commended for. On the field, if McLendon could simply continue to create penetration in the run game at a high level, he would be an excellent value with such a measly cap hit.
In his 11th NFL season, McLendon not only lived up to expectations, but he knocked them so far out of the ballpark that Joe Douglas decided to extend his contract into 2020 after just four games.
Gregg Williams worked magic with a ton of Jets defenders in his first season commanding the defense, and that included his oldest player. Prior to the year, it did not seem that would be the case. McLendon appeared to be in somewhat of a precarious situation with Williams coming in. Williams has always been known for his attacking mentality, while McLendon’s strength has always been holding the fort down as a two-gap defender.
As it turns out, Williams’ scheme did not hold McLendon back — it unleashed him. McLendon has always been an underrated athlete with more versatility than given credit for. Under Williams, McLendon put a ton of purely dominant reps on tape with more opportunities to shoot gaps aggressively.
Getting the chance to make the most of his unique skillset in Williams’ scheme, McLendon had his best season as a pass-rusher in 2019. He posted a career-best 18 total pressures, including seven quarterback hits, also a career-high. At 33 years old, McLendon created pressure on 8.3 percent of pass-rush snaps, which ranked 43rd out of 118 qualified defensive tackles.
On this play, McLendon shifts from the nose to a slanted 1-tech and beats Miami center Evan Boehm to get a hit on Fitzpatrick that forces an incompletion. Keep an eye on McLendon’s quickness off the snap, hand usage, and flexibility to get back inside. McLendon has always been strong in these areas for a man his size, and we got to see him unleash those tools on a more consistent basis in 2019.
Here, McLendon creates havoc in the passing game from the nose. The Bengals slide protection right. McLendon maintains inside leverage and destroys center Trey Hopkins with a nasty club to his inside shoulder. McLendon swims his left arm over, squeaks by the left guard’s attempt to help, and makes an athletic finish to bring down Andy Dalton for a 10-yard sack.
McLendon also made more splashy plays in the run game than he had in the past. He recorded seven tackles for loss against the run, tied for sixth among defensive tackles.
What made McLendon such an underrated force over his first three seasons in New York was the number of positive plays he made that did not show up on the stat sheet. McLendon’s penetration against the run regularly opens up easy opportunities for teammates to clean up plays.
Even with the uptick in statistical production this past season, McLendon was still making numerous off-the-stat sheet plays just as he has throughout his career.
Watch here as McLendon (2-tech opposite right guard) controls the point attack, forcing James Conner to bounce outside into the waiting arms of Jamal Adams (who disengages James Washington’s block with ease). This is against a pair of All-Pros in Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro. McLendon holds his ground against the double team, so when Pouncey peels off to hit the second level, McLendon is in perfect position to toss DeCastro outside and shoot through the A-gap, blowing up the run.
McLendon creates this one-yard stuff on Sony Michel basically on his own, yet did not receive any tackle credit in the box score. It is a perfect example of a great play that McLendon will never get recognition for simply because his name is not attached to it. McLendon (2i-tech over right guard’s inside shoulder) plows star right guard Shaq Mason into the backfield, stifling Sony Michel and giving the troops time to rally for the stop.
Something else beyond the penetration itself makes that play from McLendon special. Watch his helmet. Michel’s initial target is straight up the middle. So, McLendon flashes his helmet inside, prompting Michel to redirect outside. Then, McLendon mirrors Michel and flashes outside, prompting another change of direction back to the inside. There, a sea of green and white awaits Michel. That is some high-level savvy from the veteran.
In the past, it would be fair to list McLendon’s lack of pass-rush production as a legitimate gripe with his game, but he improved to an above-average level in that facet this past season. Finding an issue with anything Steve McLendon does on or off the field is tough. He has been a model member of this franchise for nearly a half-decade.
McLendon will be back in 2020 with a cap hit of $2.8M. If he can bring the same level of play he did in 2019 — maintaining his improved pass-rush production while remaining an excellent run defender — he would be a tremendous value once again. However, at 34 years old, the Jets do not even need to expect that much. Simply getting the leadership and run-game penetration McLendon has always been known for would be plenty good at that price tag.
In 2019, McLendon was the fourth-oldest defensive lineman in the NFL (behind Michael Bennett, Brandon Mebane, and Domata Peko). 2020 will be McLendon’s fifth season into his 30s as a member of the Jets. He has eluded Father Time with gusto to this point. Can he do it one more time?