Training Camp 2013: Steelers nose tackle keeps on his toes
July 30, 2013 4:00 PM
Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley intercepts pass in an afternoon workout at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon at training camp at Saint Vincent College near Latrobe.
Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon fights off block by guard David DeCastro at training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Steve McLendon, who officially gained 40 pounds Monday, might not squeeze into a tutu, no matter the size. At 320 pounds, it would not be a pretty sight, either.
Yet, he has those dance moves down, even if he does not wear the costume. Ballet may be a non-contact sport, and there are no 340-pound offensive linemen to engage, but "it's harder than anything else I do," McLendon proclaimed.
McLendon began taking a ballet class his senior year at Troy University in Alabama to pick up what he thought might be a few easy credits. There was nothing easy about it for the biggest and only male dancer in a class of about a dozen. But his instructor kept telling him it would help him in football, and he discovered she was correct.
He has been taking lessons, on and off, ever since, pirouetting to the Adrenaline Barre Fitness studio on Mount Washington as often as twice a week. His instructor the past four years has been Stephanie Kibler.
"I work him harder than the majority of women will ever work in a ballet setting," Kibler said. "He does it well. He might have sweat dripping off him and looking at me like I'm crazy, but he does it. He really works hard. It's almost like he's mastering the craft of ballet. He's not in there just for football."
McLendon cut back on his lessons last season but says he wants to renew them soon. When not in the dance studio, he could still be found practicing his moves.
"I still do some of the same things, the Plié, walking barefoot on your toes," McLendon explained. "I just walk barefoot doing the lateral."
Not only did he find it helps his dexterity in the middle of the defensive line, but it wards off injuries.
"It keeps you injury free, your ankles, keeps your feet strong, your toes strong, you get away from knee injuries," McLendon said. "I can tell when I don't do it in my body."
Said instructor Kibler: "What's good about what he does, it's not just for the grace and control, but it helps strengthen areas that may be open to injury. We are strengthening those areas that tend to be a little weaker. He steps it up."
Lynn Swann famously took ballet in the 1970s and once joined a ballet company for a show in Pittsburgh. But Swann was a wide receiver built for ballet at 5 feet 11, 180 pounds, and looked as if he were practicing it on a football field at times, especially in Super Bowls against the Dallas Cowboys.
McLendon is 6 feet 4, and he'll never appear with the Pittsburgh Ballet. That's likely OK with Steelers fans as long as he can adequately replace nose tackle Casey Hampton.
Hampton was no ballerina at nearly 350 pounds, but he was effective, so much so that he played 12 seasons, all as a starter. Those are big shoes to fill, even if McLendon often goes shoeless when practicing his dance steps.
"I can't really say I'm going to be Casey Hampton because I'm not him," said McLendon.
No, although he looked more like him on the official roster Monday. McLendon has been listed at 280 pounds since he made the practice squad as an undrafted rookie in 2009. Even last season, when he reached 325, the Steelers listed him at 280, which is the weight they list for him in their new media guide. But, for the first time, they listed his weight at 320 on their roster Monday, something McLendon pointed out.
He's among the big fellows, in more ways than one.
Coaches will tell you that everything in the 3-4 defense starts with the nose tackle. It's his job to clog up that middle, and no one did it better than Hampton, who made five Pro Bowls. McLendon hopes to get the job done, just maybe a little differently.
"Casey was way better than me holding three guys," McLendon said. "I'm a little smaller than Casey, so I can rush the passer. That's what it's all about. I have to use my abilities to help me be successful in this defense."
He acknowledges that his top two jobs are to stop the run and to keep blockers off his linebackers. But maybe there's something he can add to the position, a quarterback sack here and there. That's the one area in which Hampton never excelled. He collapsed the pocket, which allowed others to bring the quarterback down, but Hampton had only nine sacks in a dozen years in the NFL, topping out at 2.5 in 2009.
McLendon believes he can do better, at least double Hampton's best, because of his style of play.
"It's all in the player," McLendon said.
Should he become more prolific at getting to the quarterback, he might have to work on a new repertoire during his Mount Washington ballet lessons -- a sack dance.