Steelers’ McLendon aims to make splash on defense
Nose tackle Steve McLendon will be a key component of the Steelers’ defense.
PITTSBURGH – For more than a decade, it was a given that the Steelers’ defensive line would include Casey Hampton anchoring the middle of Pittsburgh’s 3-4 alignment.
And at 330-plus pounds, Hampton, a starter since midway through his rookie season in 2001, was a whole lot of anchor.
But following the 2012 season, the Steelers chose not to offer the 36-year-old Hampton a new contract, opting instead of go with Steve McLendon at nose tackle.
McLendon will make his second career start Sunday when the Steelers host Tennessee in the season opener at Heinz Field.
Coupled with the losses of Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke following the 2011 season, the Steelers have rebuilt their defensive line in the span of two years.
Many of the names and faces have changed, but the expectations have not.
“Our defense is built on the defensive line,” said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. “They may not be the ones to get the splash plays – the linebackers show up and try to do it and then you’ve got Troy (Polamalu) flying around out there – but without the defensive line getting where they’ve got to get, we can’t do what we need to do.”
The Steelers expect bigger contributions from McLendon and end Cameron Heyward, the 2011 first-round draft pick who will split time with Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel, to give them a three-man rotation and keep everyone fresh.
That will be important early in the season, when the weather is warmer and players aren’t accustomed to being on the field for 50 plays after seeing limited time in the preseason.
“We feel very good about Cam Heyward,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “I think he’s had a very good preseason and training camp. We’re going to feature him in some sub-package football.”
Much of what the Steelers do on defense will revolve around McLendon and if he can adequately replace Hampton.
McLendon, whose one career start came in Arizona in 2011 when Hampton was injured, was very active in the preseason, getting down the line of scrimmage to stretch runs to the outside.
“A young Casey used to make tackles from sideline to sideline like that,” said linebacker Larry Foote. “(McLendon) is probably going to make more tackles than Casey, just being a little younger. As a middle linebacker, you just want him to dent that line, make that running back cut. We can play off of him and dominate if he can do that. We want him to push that center and take those double teams.”
It’s something Hampton, who was listed at 6-1, excelled at, though McLendon (6-4, 320) is built differently.
“Let’s face it, you don’t design your game plan around who the other team’s nose tackle is,” said LeBeau. “Steve will have to step in but he’s done this. It isn’t like he’s never been out on the field. He’s played a lot of snaps the past couple of years. He’s just got to get in there and take his role on the defense, get his gap, get off some blocks and get some pressure. I’m not guessing on this. I’ve seen him to do it. I’m confident that he’ll play well.”
Fullback Will Johnson (hamstring) returned to practice Friday and is listed as probable to play Sunday, as is linebacker Jarvis Jones. ... Keisel missed practice Friday for personal reasons but also is probable to play. ... Tight end Heath Miller (knee) is doubtful. ... Running back Le’Veon Bell (foot) is out.