On the Steelers: Starting nose tackle plans to be a heavyweight next season

Steve McLendon played nose tackle last season. Today, he looks like one.

The Steelers did not just get bigger in the middle of their defensive line when they drafted 352-pound Daniel McCullers in the sixth round last month. They also got bigger because, well, McLendon got bigger.

He added 17 pounds since last season and now weighs a robust 330 pounds at 6 foot 4. At 313, he was quick and speedy but admittedly wore down. He was overpowered at times by bigger players in front of him. He vows that won’t happen in 2014.

Roethlisberger makes appearance at Steelers practice

Post-Gazette beat writer Ed Bouchette talks about the Steelers' OTA training sessions from the South Side. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made his first appearance. (Video by Peter Diana; 6/5/2014)

“It’s time for me to step up and be a player for this team,” McLendon declared after another spring practice.

McLendon last season replaced the longtime anchor at nose tackle, 335-pound Casey Hampton, and he promised to be a different kind of nose tackle — a lighter, quicker version that might even get to the quarterback more often.

He said he dropped weight preparing for the role at the behest of his coaches, going from 328 in 2012 to 313 last season. It was some learning experience, as he got swallowed up and beaten up at times inside.

“When you’re trying to hold a guy who weighs more than you, there’s going to be wear and tear on the body,” McLendon said. “Me staying there, I couldn’t do it. Me gaining the weight was the most important thing for me, I felt, to be a healthier and better player.”

He swears he has not lost his quickness and promised his coaches he would not when he decided on his own to get bigger. He gained the weight by doing less long-distance running and more heavy weightlifting, along with consuming the usual permitted protein supplements. Along the way, he made sure he was not losing quickness, and, in turn, he became stronger.

Statistics from the second half of his first season as a starting nose tackle are evidence of the toll his body took. After eight games, he had 19 tackles. He had only four over the second half of the season, when he missed two games with ankle injuries.

“It most definitely wore on you, because you’re coming from not playing so many snaps to playing double and almost triple your snaps,” he said of the additional play at the lighter weight. “I’m definitely better prepared. I have confidence in myself. I don’t want to talk about it, I just want to show what I’m capable of.”

He also worked on strengthening the muscles in his ankles so he does not have similar injury problems in 2014.

“I want to make sure I keep those ankles strong because I want to be a player for my team. I am going to be a player for my team. They need me as I need them.”

Steelers coaches privately talked about needing better play at nose tackle this year to keep the blockers off their linebackers, something Hampton did so well.

“It was a learning season for me,” McLendon said. “I started off pretty good, I thought. As the season went on my body started to get beat down. It started to get tough for me. I continued to fight, no matter what.

“I have seen it, I really understood what Casey had to go through. Those are tough seasons, especially as a young and new guy; people try to take advantage of those things. Now that I know that, I’m not a young guy, I’m not new to this system.”

At least one analytical site gave McLendon, 28, high marks for his ability against the run last season. He received a 5.7 rating from Pro Football Focus, the highest they gave any Steeler against the run.

The Steelers signed McLendon to a three-year, $7.25 million contract last year after he paid a visit to the Green Bay Packers as a restricted free agent. This year, they drafted McCullers and signed another nose tackle, Cam Thomas, as an unrestricted free agent. McLendon has a positive attitude about those additions and the return of another big nose tackle, Hebron Fangupo.

“They want to start, I want to start; they want to play, I want to play. I’m going to do whatever I need to help them be successful and that will help me be successful too.”

The job is McLendon’s and he aims to not just keep it, but throw his weight around more.

Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published June 5, 2014 8:14 PM

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