Steelers Shape Shifters: What\’s The Story With These New Looks?

By Christopher DiMarino

This is a time of the offseason where finding Steeler specific news in the general media is tough. Most are discussing top draft picks and key free agent transitions, yet outside of Warren Sapp\’s belligerence and the alleged friction between Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger, the media is avoiding the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most part. The biggest stories coming out of Steeler specific news sites lately seem to revolve around players making drastic changes. Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon and Trai Essex have all changed shape this offseason. How much of an effect will it have on their on-field play and the Steelers success in 2012?

I\’ll start with McLendon. The big reports showed him jumping from 280lbs up all the way to 325lbs! I read a little too far into his weight increase and Dave brought up the valid point that he was likely somewhere near this weight towards the end of last season. The weight delta or timeline are trivial, the importance lies in what this means for him on the field. McLendon has big shoes to fill being the injury replacement for Casey Hampton, and he\’s also trying to prove that he can be a franchise nose tackle for years to come. He\’s no stranger to the field and has the backing of defensive line coach John Mitchell in addition. The key variable in this situation is McLendon. Being the nose tackle for the Steelers is both an important and prestigious position. It can be said that his performance will directly contribute to the successes of this defense in 2012.

Though many won\’t admit it, the effects of nose tackles are mostly mental. Teams know that they had to double Hampton which is exactly what the Steelers wanted. The nose tackle must occupy two blockers and in the better case stalemate their motion. When a team is preparing for McLendon, they might not give him that respect. This will give the former undrafted free agent the upper hand to prove he is worthy of that double team. To gauge his success early, watch how many times opposing teams are doubling him, and when they don\’t, how much penetration he\’s able to get. He must be a space occupier and whether extra bulk will help him with that remains to be seen.

Sticking with the defensive line, Hood has had the most impressive change from a football standpoint. If you\’ve listened to the podcast where David and Dave interviewed Hood\’s trainer Bill Nichol, then you were probably astounded by how much of an improvement he made this offseason. I know that he is a professional athlete, and that being in top physical form is to be expected, but Hood isn\’t a slouch. He has a wide reputation as a workout warrior who is constantly in the weight room. Add in the fact that he was a first round pick and tell me that if that caliber player increased his strength you wouldn\’t be excited.

The key with Hood has always been for him to translate raw ability into results on the football field. While he doesn\’t need to rack up the sacks, he does need to provide constant pressure. In fact, the reason why I think Brett Keisel is so effective, aside from his long arms, is that he has a very consistent motor. Pass rushing is a game-long battle against the opposing offensive line and he needs to wear down his man. Look for him to be able to constantly deliver pressure and keep the quarterback confined to the pocket. If he can do this on a consistent basis and blow up some run plays in the backfield, then his reputation as a one gap player will be irrelevant.

Essex has the most curious transition; he lost a boat load of weight. The perplexing part is understanding if that will be a benefit or a detriment for him. While losing weight from a health stand point is always important, his performance on the football field might be affected. The key here is that the Steelers were concerned about him being overweight and he dealt with it. From an organizational standpoint, I believe the Steelers are very happy with him, but once training camp starts it will be a full out competition for him against second round pick Mike Adams.

Essex is an average height for and tackle at 6\’5, so the loss of weight might affect him against bull rushes. I want to remind everyone that this change could have been at a massive change to his strength and conditioning, but his playing ability will likely have to adjust. I don\’t like getting overly speculative, but if we use the picture of him on Steelers Depot as a reference, it looks like he lost enough weight to starkly affect his playing style.

Essex, Hood and McLendon all had very different transitions. McLendon\’s transformation might be old news. Hood has always been a workout warrior, but took it to the next level. Essex changed from a player with weight concerns to an underweight athlete who might have to change his game. At the very least, all three guys will be exciting to watch this year. While reps are guaranteed for some more than others, all are involved in positional battles. I believe all three will be better players because outside of the work involved in weight loss or muscle gain, the one constant that remains is very strong will power and effort to succeed.

  • Kingmagyar

    Essex is now at that Finesse Left Tackle weight. I noticed a lot of guys drafted for the tackle position are 310-320. This weight loss may hurt his ability to play Guard and Center but might help him be a more athletic tackle. Of course the thing I liked the most about him was his ability to play all the positions on the line and that made him a great value.

  • Jprankster2005

    I look for Hood to be a monster this yr……. And if Mclendon and Ta’amu are doing good by the end of preseason and can hold down NT all year and there sure of it, I think they should cut Hampton and save the other 2.8 million…… I seriously don’t see Hampton playing this yr… And I think it’s a waste of money and a valuable spot on the team to waste…… I felt the same way about Leftwich last yr….. They pretty much knew he was done and payed him 1.75 million for sitting there….. I just think they need to save as much aas they can to sign others that are important and are going to be FA’s and money like that can be used on them instead on a player that is done…… Hampton should of been cut with Ward and all the others at the time but maybe they know something we don’t……

  • Jb

    I can’t remember any longer which game it was, but towards the later part of the season last year when the starting center Pouncy went down, Essex had, at least, one very good game at the center position. He clearly seemed bigger and stronger than Legursky, who was also hurt at the time. I believe that Essex even got some “very good pub” for how well he played, from both the coaches and some players. But, as soon as Legursky was okay health-wise Essex was tossed to the side.

    I’m not the type of person who gets excited whenever I see the supposedly next great thing. I am generally patient and wait/look for trends… good or bad. But, Essex in my mind played so well in that one game that he deserved a second look. Heck, I remember before Pouncy was back that Legursky returned the following week, even though Legursky reportedly was still pretty beat-up.

    Cower would also do this sometimes. A player would get a chance and flash some real skills, because another was out for a week or more with an injury. But, as soon as the injured player was cleared to return he was put back in the starting line-up. Then there were a few occasion where the starting player was hurt again, more permanentally, and the back up received some greater playing time… and did very well. Now, it seemed fairly obvious to most Pittsburgh fans from the beginning that the back-up was better than the original chosen starter. Yet, it took a serious/more permanent injury before the Steelers coaching staff would make the needed change.

  • Broderick Wallace

    Leftwich and Batch do more than sit on the bench. They help Ben break down film during games and such. Is it worth the money though? I do not have an answer to that.

  • Colin Grant

    The key to all of this is what constitutes a monster year. You have the fans version of monster year and then the coaches version of monster year, and I’m not sure they are the same. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to fully understand “exactly” what the coaches expect of that position, then judge accordingly. Not disagreeing with any of the above. Just interested in offering a fair assessment of a player that meets the coaches criteria, not ours.

    Case in point: I’m still reading about fans complaining about cornerbacks playing off of the receivers. Dick LeBeau, Ike Taylor and William Gay (I realized he’s no longer a Steeler) have gone on record to state that the defensive formation that positioned them off of the ball is a a technique that falls within the zone defense concept. As corners, Taylor, Gay and all of the corners hated having to play off the ball, but in fact were instructed to do so. After Tom Brady lit them up during the 2010 season, they pleaded for LeBeau to play tighter coverage. LeBeau granted them their wish, and for the 2nd half of the season, they improved the pass defense average significantly. Due to success in 2010, LeBeau “allowed” them to continue tighter coverage and they led the league in pass defense. Some point to the schedule, but fail to realize or mention that their schedule was not much different then the the rest of the AFC central, and/or NFL in general. You play some good teams and some bad.

  • Nice write up!