By Matthew Marczi
After over a decade of watching Casey Hampton anchor the defensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers (with the exception of a long stretch during the 2004 season when Chris Hoke filled in due to injury), it is an unusual feeling picturing the team’s defense without that comically large helmet spearheading the troops.
That is the situation in which the Steelers find themselves, however, in 2013, turning now to Steve McLendon, a former undrafted player, to man the nose tackle position.
Of course, this was a decision that the team made largely voluntarily, with financial considerations also playing a factor. In fact, defensive line coach John Mitchell may very well be downright giddy about the idea of McLendon moving into the starting lineup.
If you will recall, nose tackle was seen as a critical need entering the 2012 NFL Draft such that some outlets suggested that the Steelers might even trade up to select Dontari Poe in the first round. They did, in fact, trade up; however, that trade came in the fourth round, and it was for nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu.
It was during the press conference for Ta’amu that Mitchell expressed his fondness for McLendon publicly, however, after taking one too many questions indicating that Ta’amu would be handed the successorship to the nose tackle position.
When asked if McLendon could fulfill the classic role of the nose tackle, he said, “everybody wants to discard McLendon, let me tell you this, hold your opinion until the season is over”. Asked later to clarify, he reiterated, “I\’m just saying keep your opinion until after the season, you make the decision”.
After this past draft, with the selection of defensive end Nicholas Williams in the seventh round, Mitchell spoke about McLendon again, referencing his remarks from the previous year. Asked if he was happy with the nose tackle position, he said, “I remember sitting here last year. You guys had a coronation for Alameda Ta’amu. I told you if you look we had a guy who wore number 90 who was going to have a chance to play. I remember that. So I’m very happy with him”.
Of course, McLendon only played about a quarter of Hampton’s snaps last year. He will be asked to play perhaps even more than Hampton did a season ago, given the relative inexperience behind him with Ta’amu and Hebron Fangupo.
Most importantly, though, McLendon made sure to get the most out of his snaps. He recorded six pressures, two sacks, two tackles for loss, and a forced fumble in his brief and sporadic playing time a season ago, and he will be looking to continue to build on these impactful numbers to make a name for himself and secure his reputation beyond Hampton’s looming shadow.
McLendon will never be as strong as Hampton. He will never be able to command double and triple teams the way that Hampton did at his peak. It will be a tall task to even ask him to play the run as well as he did, such as when he helped the Steelers have one of the best rushing defenses of all time in 2010.
But in exchange for some of these more prototypical staples of the 3-4 nose tackle, McLendon hopes to bring some more of the Jay Ratliff school of thought, a smaller, quicker body type that can penetrate and stay on the field in passing situations.
Given the lack of productivity of late from the outside linebacker position, it very well may be the case that we see more of McLendon on the field on third downs. And with his mentor Chris Hoke interning at training camp this year, he should be able to come into the regular season prepared to hit the ground running.