There was one ray of hope on the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their quagmire last week,…
McLendon Will Grow As NT
Follow the bouncing nose tackles and you can pretty much follow the Steelers' history of run defense, and at most times their won-loss records. Let's go way back to when Bill Cowher drafted the first Pro Bowl nose tackle in team history, Joel Steed: * In 1992, Cowher drafted Steed in the third round but started Gerald Williams at nose tackle throughout his first season as coach. The Steelers did make the playoffs, for a game, but without much thanks to a run defense that allowed 4.2 yards per carry. * In 1993, Steed started the opener at NT and stayed there for all but eight games until his retirement following the 1999 season. That last season was a pain in the knees for Steed, who, in his prime years of 1993-98 anchored a defense that allowed opposing ballcarriers 3.4 yards per carry. It was the "Blitzburgh" era because of a pass rush that was set up by the Steelers' stout run defense. * In 1999, with Steed at the end of the line, the Steelers allowed 4.0 yards per carry in his 13 1/2 games played. The nose tackle left Game 14 and the run defense took a nose dive. In the final 2 1/2 games without Steed, and with Jeremy Staat on the nose, the Steelers allowed 5.7 yards per carry. * In 2000 the Steelers drafted Kendrick Clancy in the third round but started free-agent acquisition Kimo von Oelhoffen at nose tackle between Aaron Smith and Kevin Henry. The run defense (and the won-loss record) improved a bit, but at 4.0 it wasn't quite good enough, so ... * In 2001 the Steelers drafted Casey Hampton in the first round and signed Chris Hoke as an undrafted rookie free agent. Clancy started the first five games between Smith and Von Oelhoffen and the Steelers allowed 3.9 yards per carry. Hampton moved into the position for the sixth game, and through the rest of the season anchored a 3.3 ypc. run defense. In the 2001 playoffs, the Steelers allowed 2.5 ypc. * Hampton (and when necessary Hoke) anchored a run defense from 2001 through 2010 that allowed an average of 3.6 yards per carry. Both men began slowing down to start the second decade, and Hoke retired following the 2011 season. Hampton wasn't re-signed after last season. The Steelers allowed 3.9 ypc. in those two seasons as Steve McLendon warmed up in the wings. * With McLendon moving into the lineup at nose tackle this season, the Steelers are allowing 4.2 ypc. It would appear as if the team has come full circle to Cowher's first season as coach with Williams on the nose (4.2), but a better comparison to McLendon might be Von Oelhoffen, who emerged as an outstanding defensive end after moving out of a position that didn't quite fit his body type. The 6-4, 300-pound KvO never complained about playing NT until he wasn't playing it anymore, and as he grew older he freely told reporters that he never felt liked it and never felt comfortable there. But it brings up these questions about McLendon, another tall, 6-4 nose tackle: Would he be more effective as a defensive end? And should the Steelers look for their next Steed/Hampton in the 2014 draft? When the question was put to a couple of players, former and current, the answer was a resolute "No!" For one reason, backup NT Loni Hebron -- while showing enough at training camp to send a recent fourth-round draft pick packing -- "is not ready for the big leagues yet. This is a redshirt year for him." And next year, it's believed, McLendon will be proving any doubters wrong because the belief is strong that he's a true nose tackle. McLendon is considered "a physical specimen" who only needs time to get a better understanding of NFL running attacks in order to better recognize "when (opponents) can and when they can't run the ball. He just has to keep working on the little things, and he is. He'll be fine." Sources point out that McLendon doesn't have Aaron Smith next to him, and that first-year starting strong-side DE Cameron Heyward is going through a learning process as well. And then there are the linebackers, the rookie linebackers. Vince Williams, who replaced injured Larry Foote at the strong-side inside spot known as the "buck," and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, are naturally finding difficulties as rare rookie starters in Dick LeBeau's defense. Film-watchers point out that the rookies had trouble with the New England Patriots' counter O and zone plays, particularly on the backside. Williams was also primarily responsible for the 60-yard Adrian Peterson run in London. Certainly Gerald Williams, KvO and maybe even Jeremy Staat had similar excuses, but McLendon wasn't the one using them this week after the Patriots rushed for 197 yards (5.6) and used that running threat to make big plays off play-action last Sunday. "If you don't take it personal, what you doing here?" McLendon told a mob of reporters standing around his locker on Wednesday. "Look at the guys here before me. Look at Casey. Look at Chris Hoke. Both of those guys did an excellent job of stopping the run, especially Casey. Hoke was extremely smart. So they did a great job stopping the run. They didn't have this. They didn't let anyone score 55 points on them. I've got to go out here and play my best, play better, play harder, play faster, play smarter." McLendon made the point that "I'm not Casey. I'm Steve" and promised that "I'm going to go out there and play my game." He called it " redemption week" for the Steelers and for the team's run defense and perhaps McLendon in particular. At least he's taking it that way. "Control the day," McLendon said. "And then worry about tomorrow tomorrow." And from what the experts on and around the team are saying, no one will have to worry about Steve McLendon's tomorrow as the team's nose tackle of the future.
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