No Casey Hampton, no problem for the Steelers. At least for now that’s been the case so far in training camp and after one preseason game. While the Steelers would love to have the Big Snack healthy and at his normal post anchoring the defensive line, he’s still on the PUP recovering from his ACL surgery. Fortunately for them though their smart drafting and offseason homework looks to be paying off with 2 quality nose tackles on the roster.
Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell has been talking up Steve McLendon since the offseason began and McLendon so far has delivered as promised. When Hampton revealed he had the torn ACL, everyone began to wonder if the Steelers were going to draft a future Hampton or rely on the young prospect on the roster already. Most felt like McLendon, who at the time was around 285 lbs wasn’t big enough or stout enough to play NT in a 34 defense. That’s when Mitchell stepped in and told everyone to just wait and see, that McLendon was a budding star and would turn some heads.
He put on a good 30 lbs or so in the offseason and showed up to camp weighing in at 325 lbs but looking like he was carrying it as well as anyone that size could. So then you wondered if he’d lose a step and be less mobile but he’s been looking better than ever and had a nice outing against the Eagles. He finished up the game with 3 tackles and 1 sack of Michael Vick on the first and only series that the Eagles QB played that night. McLendon showed his power and quick feet in the short time he was in the game and is appearing to prove his boss right about his ability to play. Just like anything else in preseason, you are careful not to read too much into it but the coaches are high him and he’s putting a lot of uneasy minds to rest here so far.
The future may very well still be Alameda Ta’amu but he’ll likely have to wait for his time. The coaches weren’t exactly thrilled with the shape that he showed up to camp in, and he has had some struggles with holding his gap and being able to use his leverage effectively based on the situation of the play that’s called. He is a skyscraper of a man, there is no denying it. If you look at him the first thing think of is, “man this dude is a monster”. He’s got the physical tools but it will take time for him to put it all together.
He didn’t register any tackles in the game on Thursday night but if you watched him you could see signs that this kid can be a good one once he gets it all together. When you watch him get down in his stance and then basically pick up his man and walk him backwards, you know he’s got brute strength and power to spare. The thing that he’s learning now is how to use his abilities to benefit the entire defense and do his part to execute the play the way it’s designed. While driving your man back is well and good, being on the line isn’t always about that. You’re asked, as a lineman in Pittsburgh, to hold your ground and control your gap so the running back has to run the way that you want him to run, thus allowing the defense to flow to the ball and shoot the gap or string out the play to the sidelines. If you get manhandled by your man or take your opponent out of position it allows a ball carrier to find a crease where there might not be help behind you. Things like that take time to learn and there’s no reason to think he won’t get there.
In the mean time though between McLendon and Ta’amu, the Steelers future is bright at NT and that’s a nice thing to have in your favor as your defense gets younger. If Hampton is able to come back this season then you’ve got yet another option available late in the year should you need it.