With a defensive unit chock full of thirty-something veterans, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin will turn to one of his youngest players Sunday to give his team a lift. Steve McLendon, a second-year pro from Troy University, will make his first NFL start at nose tackle against the Arizona Cardinals.
McLendon, 25, started the season as the third-string nose tackle but has moved up the depth chart because starter Casey Hampton and top backup Chris Hoke are injured. Hampton will miss his third consecutive game with a shoulder injury. Hoke, injured the victory last week against Jacksonville, did not practice all week and is listed as doubtful.
McLendon played extensively for the first time in his career against the Jaguars after Hoke left the game in the first half. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said McLendon played well and that he has no qualms about starting him.
"Steve has great strength," LeBeau said. "He has improved almost daily from the day he came here. [Defensive line coach John] Mitchell has done a great job with him. You can never have enough quality players.
"You can never have too much depth. Steve is one of the reasons we have good depth. The more he actually plays, the better he'll get. I have a lot of confidence in him. He'll play hard and he'll be in the right spot. He'll be where he needs to be."
The nose tackle is one of the most important players in LeBeau's 3-4 defense because he occupies blockers and allows linebackers to run free and make tackles on running plays. Inside linebacker Larry Foote is anxious to see how 6-foot-4, 280-pound McLendon performs as a starter.
"He did good, but I think the eyes will really be on him this week," Foote said. "He'll play a full game. We'll see how he reacts. We know he's a great talent. We saw him in practice last year. There's a reason why he's here. But there's a difference from doing it in practice and doing it in a game."
McLendon was on the practice squad for the 2009 season and went back and forth between the practice squad and active roster last season. He said the biggest adjustment for him has been learning LeBeau's 3-4 defense after playing in a 4-3 in college.
"My first year, I'm not going to lie, it took me my whole first year to learn it," McLendon said.
"Once I really caught the hang of it, I practiced it a lot. That was my biggest thing, just being able to see things faster. The biggest thing for me was I couldn't slow stuff down, everything was so fast. My second year, I came in with the mindset of slow it down, you know the plays now, just play the technique the coach has been teaching you. That's what I started doing."
McLendon has some big shoes to fill. Hoke, 17-1 when replacing Hampton in the starting lineup. has been impressed with McLendon and his work ethic.
"He's doing great job," Hoke said. "He works hard and wants to be good. A lot of it is the willingness to prepare and be good. A lot of guys have the talent, but don't want to put in the time and the effort.
"That's what he wants to do. He has all the tools and he wants to be good, so he'll be good."
Center Maurkice Pouncey was a full participant in practice Friday and is listed as probable for a game against the Cardinals. Pouncey, who injured his left elbow Thursday in practice, said there is discomfort, but said he will "definitely" play. Pouncey also has dealt with knee and ankle injuries this season, but he has not missed a start.
Reserve lineman Trai Essex said he is ready to step in at center if Pouncey has to leave. Doug Legursky is the backup center, but he is out for several weeks with a dislocated toe.
Essex practiced extensively at center Thursday. His only game experience at center was limited to some work in the Sept. 1 preseason finale against Carolina.
"The more and more reps I get, the more comfortable I get," said Essex, who was re-signed this summer because of his versatility.
"The mental aspect was never the tough part because I knew what the center calls were when I was at guard and tackle. The hardest part to get used to is just snapping and moving at the same time. And it's the only position where you have to have a square base, whereas everywhere else you stagger one side or the other."
Four players have been ruled out Sunday for the game. Hampton, defensive end Aaron Smith (foot), outside linebacker James Harrison (eye) and Legursky.
Outside linebacker Jason Worilds (quadricep) is listed as questionable and receiver Mike Wallace (hamstring) and running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee) are listed as probable.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com or 412-263-1230.