Following an ankle injury in the 1st quarter against the Cleveland Browns, Steve McLendon’s season looked to be coming to an abrupt ending. Today in his Monday press conference, Coach Tomlin addressed Steve McLendon’s situation, describing his injury as a right ankle sprain. Tomlin went on to state the obvious when he said that Steve McLendon would not be able to play against the Ravens Thursday night. When asked about who would take McLendon’s place, Coach Tomlin would not commit to Al Woods as the starter against Baltimore. But, who else is there? Hebron Fangupo finally got on the field against Cleveland, but he is behind Al Woods on the depth chart for a reason. While McLendon hasn’t been a dominant force this season, he has been a steady force in the middle that will only continue to improve.
So why might the Steelers be in trouble if McLendon is absent for several more weeks? Here is a rundown of the center-guard combos for the remainder of the season:
C Gino Gradkowski
G Marshall Yanda
G A.Q. Shipley
Analysis: This week in Baltimore, Al Woods would be facing one of the easier centers in the league in Gino Gradkowski. In the week 7 matchup, McLendon demolished the young center, helping the Steelers halt the Ravens offense. A.Q. Shipley does not bring much of a challenge as well, but the real concern comes from the right side where All-Pro guard Marshall Yanda will be attempting to cut Al Woods. Other than Yanda occasionally cracking down on Woods, I have faith that Woods will be able to at least anchor the middle of the defense. Of all weeks for Steve McLendon to miss, this would be one of the better ones.
C Mike Pouncey
G John Jerry
G Nate Garner
Analysis: While neither of these two guards strike fear into a defense, their center sure can. A twin of Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Pouncey has been arguably better than his Pro Bowl brother in the past season or two, and he is playing at a high level this season as well. I saw Steve McLendon do a nice job against Maurkice in training camp, and while Mike Pouncey has played better in recent memory, it is fairly reasonable to think he would do a fine job against Mike Pouncey as well. Al Woods on the other hand may struggle quite a bit. A high caliber center like Mike Pouncey would have a lot of fun going against a back-up nose guard in Al Woods. Stopping the Dolphins run attack may very well come down to either Al Woods or Steve McLendon against Pouncey, and in order to have a chance of winning this matchup, McLendon needs to be in the lineup.
C Kyle Cook
G Kevin Zietler
G Clint Boling
Analysis: This Bengal interior line is a very solid group, but it is nowhere near elite. After having a Pro Bowl caliber season, Kevin Zietler has not played to the same level this season, but don’t get me wrong, he is still a good football player. If Steve McLendon is back at this point, he could have a solid day, maybe even a dominate one if things go well, but if Al Woods is still manning the nose, the Steelers will hope once again that he can anchor the middle of the Steelers defense.
C Evan Dietrich-Smith
G Josh Sitton
G T.J. Lang
Analysis: To me, this duo of these two guards, combined with an average center in Evan Dietrich-Smith would be a bit much for Al Woods to handle. Luckily for the Steelers, Steve McLendon figures to be back at this point, so we would not have to worry about Al Woods, but if he is still out, Woods may have a tough day ahead of him.
C Alex Mack
G John Greco
G Shawn Lauvao
Analysis: At this point, I would be very surprised not to see McLendon take the field, but say for some crazy reason he isn’t healthy, Woods would be just fine, as we have proof that he can be productive going against the Browns offensive line, registering two sacks in Sundays game.
We don’t know the extent to which Steve McLendon is injured, so it becomes difficult to make a guess when he might return. He could return quickly like Ramon Foster, or he could miss a long period of time like Marcus Gilbert last season. All I know is, Steve McLendon will be practicing his ballet day-and-night to help strengthen his ankles. The Steelers are hoping this interesting hobby will help pay off during the rehab process.