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Young D-Linemen Seizing Opportunity Provided By McLendon’s Misfortune

It’s taken several days to learn, but we now finally know that Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Steve McLendon has been out of the last four practice sessions while dealing with a concussion.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writer Mark Kaboly first got the story out of wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who is also making his way back from a concussion of his own, and head coach Mike Tomlin at long last confirmed after practice that that is indeed the case.

At the very least, as Dale Lolley reported, McLendon was spotted off on his own doing some running yesterday while drills were going on, possibly suggesting that he could be cleared to resume practice soon.

In the meantime, however, many of the Steelers’ young players have been seizing upon the opportunity provided by McLendon’s misfortune by absorbing his reps, which has filtered to the defensive end position with Cam Thomas moving over to nose tackle.

For three straight says, Thomas shifting over from left end to nose gave rookie second-round draft pick Stephon Tuitt the opportunity to practice with the first-team defense, and he’s received rave reviews for his performance.

I’m not saying that that will necessarily put him on the fast track to starting any sooner than he would otherwise, but it certainly didn’t hurt either.

As Alex Kozora also reported from yesterday’s camp, Thomas even played some at Cameron Heyward’s right end spot when the latter left practice with a nick.

That gave another nose tackle a chance for some playing time. In this case, it was Hebron Fangupo, who was the reserve nose tackle last year.

Fangupo and rookie Daniel McCullers have been exchanging reps with the second-team defense at nose tackle throughout camp so far, but it seems Fangupo was the first with an opportunity to run with the first-team defense.

While Heyward’s minor injury could be one that simply keeps him out for half a practice—he’s expected to be able to resume activities today—it’s unclear when McLendon will be able to be cleared to return from his concussion.

If it’s not before Saturday’s game against the New York Giants, then it will only greater enhance the opportunities for the young defensive linemen to prove their worth. Tuitt, who has been running second-team left end all offseasos, would likely start, with Thomas running at nose.

But the Steelers will also want to see Thomas playing end as well, given that he’s expected to begin the year on the left side, which means that we could potentially see one of the young nose tackles rotated in with the first-team defense as well.

It will be a good opportunity to gauge the current state of the Steelers’ defensive line depth, which has been radically reconstructed over the past two seasons.

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