On the Steelers: McLendon wraps big paws around job at nose tackle
Steve McLendon earned the starting nose tackle job in Casey Hampton's absence, but could keep it even after Hampton was taken off the physically-unable-to-perform list Friday.
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The Steelers first signed Steve McLendon after the 2009 draft as a rookie free agent. His big hands are famous, and he needed them or otherwise he could have gotten cramps from signing so many contracts with them.
Over the course of his three previous NFL seasons, McLendon was released five times. That breaks outside linebacker James Harrison's record, although McLendon neither was cut by the Baltimore Ravens nor forced to play in NFL Europe. To quote a former Steelers lineman from the '80s, he was cut so many times he needed stitches.
McLendon won't have to worry about that again any time soon. Today, he is the Steelers' starting nose tackle, and it would not be a stretch to suggest he could hold that job even when Casey Hampton is ready to play after the Steelers activated him Friday from the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list.
McLendon would appear to be out of place on a defensive line that includes three former first-round draft picks, but, like Harrison before him, the road has not been paved with gold. That began to change a season ago when he started one game and played in 14, and people began to notice that this undrafted nose tackle with big hands also could play big.
As the Steelers completed their final public practice Friday and prepare to leave Saint Vincent College for good Sunday morning, no one has had a better training camp than McLendon.
"He's powerful, he can move in there, he can pass rush -- and the nose tackle is usually not a pass-rusher, but he can [do that]," said center Maurkice Pouncey, who often goes head to head with him in practice. "He's been playing really good, and everybody's excited about it."
There was talk the Steelers might draft a nose tackle in the first round in April as Hampton's heir apparent, and, after they waited until the fourth round to take Alameda Ta'amu, he was labeled by many as the successor to the 12-year vet with the five Pro Bowls. McLendon likely is the reason they waited so long, and Ta'amu now looks more like Chris Hoke's heir apparent as the future backup.
"I was happy for him," McLendon said, explaining his reaction when the Steelers drafted Ta'amu.
"And we needed it. We need some depth. Let's face it, I can't be the only nose tackle playing; they didn't know how far along Casey was."
Hampton's ACL was torn in the playoff game in Denver. At the worst, the Steelers will be able to rotate him and McLendon at nose tackle to keep them fresh and line them up next to each other again in the middle of their goal-line defense.
"We are two different types of guys, though," McLendon noted. "You can't compare us."
Hampton is big and strong. He stands 6 feet 1 and is listed at 325 pounds, but he likely weighs 20 pounds more. McLendon is 6-4 and preposterously listed by the Steelers as weighing 280. He said he weighed that as a junior at Troy. He weighs 325 today.
He knows how far he has come and how he has gotten here, and thinks about it often.
"Every day, but that's what I came from. I overcame that and I'm sure I'll overcome other things."
His big chance came in '10, when he was released three times in the first two months before finally making the squad for good Devil's Night Oct. 30. He played in four games and had two tackles. He had his best game last season with five tackles in his only start at Arizona.
Linebacker Larry Foote loves what he sees in front of him.
"He's strong, he's athletic, he can push the pocket and he can go on the side of the pocket and get pressure," Foote said. "I think last year he really made his mark, the games he played showed the team he's going to be here for awhile."
The new rules that permit only one practice a day and mandate one day off a week in training camp fit the veterans like a warm blanket.
The end of camp -- the Steelers have one closed practice remaining today -- caught 11-year vet Foote in a jovial mood.
"Yeah, it beat us up," he said of a camp in which players reported July 25. "Man, it's a hard, physical, tough camp. It might have been the hardest camp I've ever been through in my career -- lot of banging, lot of soreness. We need to get a better deal."
Foote believes the easier training camps will extend the playing lives of many and produce a better product Sundays.
"I wish they would have had it 10 years ago, I'd probably be looking forward to playing 25 years. It's awesome what they did, taking care of our bodies. Guys are fresher. And beyond that, I think you'll get better football. Just leaving camp, you feel fresh and you're ready to go. Instead of limping into the season, you're ready to go full tilt."
Harrison still was in no mood to have much dialogue two days after the arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Wednesday morning that coach Mike Tomlin called "minor." He walked to lunch with no apparent limp nor wrap on his left knee.
Here's a quick question/answer session with him:
What did they do, scrape something out behind your knee?
A. I don't know.
Q. Can you bounce back at 34 as you might have at 24?
A. The body doesn't come back as quick, that's just natural.
Q. What are you doing?
A. I'm doing whatever it is they tell me to do.
Q. What can you do?
A. Whatever they tell me to do.
Q. And what is that?
A. They haven't told me nothing yet.
Q. Are you swimming, stuff like that?
Q. Can you still have a big season.
A. Yeah, I'll be all right.
• Byron Leftwich will not play Sunday night against Indianapolis as Charlie Batch will get his turn to follow Ben Roethlisberger in the quarterback rotation. Jerrod Johnson again will mop up.
• Tomlin said all players not on PUP "are still in play" to get into the game at Heinz Field, including offensive tackle Max Starks, who went through his first practice Friday after coming off PUP Tuesday. Marcus Gilbert, however, will start at left tackle and Ramon Foster at right tackle. Running back Isaac Redman did not practice Friday and will not play. Rookie Michael Adams went through his second practice in pads. Roethlisberger was held out much of practice, but he is not injured.
• The NFL fined Eagles cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie $21,000 for his high, late and launching hit on Leftwich Aug. 9 in Philadelphia.
First Published August 18, 2012 12:00 am