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“Battle of the bulge”: Steelers McLendon vs Ta’amu vs Hampton

As we remember our soldiers this past Memorial Day weekend, I was thinking also about a topic to write about. I tend to do that a lot, multi tasking.  While surfing through Google (man Mr. Google is amazing isn’t he?) I came across some information and quotes on Steelers 3rd yr NT Steve McLendon. However before going any further let’s be clear, by referencing a military topic in the title of this piece, I’m not insinuating that any Steeler or NFL player on any other team should be referred to as a “soldier” or “warrior”. One of our good friends, Craig Wolfley, is very keen to that fact. His son is currently serving in the military, something he is very proud of. No sports player anywhere should be referred with those monikers. Our fighting men and women, both present and past, are the real hero’s and warriors to be proud of.

Still though when you look at the Steelers current group of nose tackles; McLendon, Hampton, and Steve McLendon are definitely some of the biggest guys on the roster. With good reason too, their job is to control their gap and occupy multiple blockers, holding down the fort until the linebackers can get there to make the play. So what of this battle that is starting to brew in the Steelers mini camps, to be followed up by training camp and pre season?

McLendon has packed on weight over the last year, weighing in at 325 lbs now, a far cry from the 280 that he is officially listed at. It was a knock against him in the eyes of more than a few. “There’s no way a guy that small can stand up to the rigors of NT on the Steelers defense for a whole year. It was a reason that some felt like the team looked to that position in this years draft. Whatever the reasons were though, it would be unwise to count out McLendon from winning the starting job this season. In fact, given that Alameda Ta’amu is a rookie, that could be enough right there to convince you that McLendon will be the starter.

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell warns everyone to keep an eye on #90: “Everybody wants to discard McLendon. Let me tell you this, hold your opinion until the season is over. I’m just saying keep your opinion until after the season, (then) you make the decision.”

McLendon himself is certainly not lacking in confidence either but appears to not be taking anything for granted either: “My goal is to be great in every aspect of my game,” McLendon said. “If there is something that Coach Mitch sees that I need to get better at, I told him to let me know. All I want to do is get better.”   “The tough part is the mental part,” he said. “Knowing what to do and how to do and when to do it is important. I picked Hokie’s brain every chance I got last year. I want to be able to be smart like Hoke. I want to be quick like (Dallas’) Jay Ratliff, and I want to be powerful and strong like Hamp,” McLendon said. “You put all that together, and I want that to be Steve McLendon.”

Alameda Ta’amu was penciled by many to start this year, even as a rookie. While that may not be the most likely scenario to unfold I wouldn’t fully bet against it either. With Casey Hampton still in recovery, it’s a battle between McLendon and Ta’amu for the starting job on the defensive line. A rookie starting in a Dick Lebeau defense, a 4th round rookie?  Far fetched maybe but again not out of the realm of possibility. Many NFL scouts and draft experts had Ta’amu rated as high as a 2nd round talent. The fact that he dropped to the 4th round shouldn’t make you dismiss his ability one bit. He will still have a lot to learn, no doubt about it, but his natural athletic ability, size, and strength are big assets that he’s got going for him.

The Steelers don’t usually like rookies on defense as we all know, mainly because the learning curve is so great and a screw up at the wrong time could mean the difference between a first down and punting situation.

Let’s not forget about the big snack either though. He’s still on the roster, and if you remember he restructured his contract to free up cap space. His place on the team is likely secure for 2012 regardless of his health…atleast until the mid way part of the season. If he does begin the year on the PUP list, they’ll have that time to evaluate how things are going with McLendon and Ta’amu in the rotation at NT. Should one of them get injured or otherwise not perform up to par, Hampton could be available to step in and man his post again, possibly for the last season of his NFL career. Will he retire after 2012? Nobody knows yet but he’s in the last year of his 21.3 million dollar, 3 yr contract. Given the drafting of a NT this year and the possible emergence of McLendon, this may very well be the last time the big snack puts on the black n gold. If we get the chance to see him play this coming year, we should cherish it.

Ultimately time will tell if Ta’amu has the ability to do the unlikely and win the starting job. McLendon has become a serious student of the game during his young NFL career. He’s a workout beast, watches a ton of film, and gleaned all he could from friend and former Steeler, Chris Hoke. That experience and attitude could likely win him the job to start the year but like we keep saying, everyone on the Steelers defensive line plays regularly. The rotation system in place keeps everyone as fresh as possible late in the game, so the guy who misses out on the starting job this year will still get his chance to play, a lot. Roles can and often do, get reversed as the season wears on. Yet again, another great battle to keep an eye on.

Quotes of McLendon and John Mitchell courtesy of the Tribune Review & Mark Kaboly.


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