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Steelers' McLendon being pushed at nose tackle

| Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, 10:49 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon practices Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, at St. Vincent in Latrobe.

The departure of nose tackle Casey Hampton left a huge gap on the Steelers' defensive front. For years, he disrupted the opposition's run game and collapsed the pocket to create a path to quarterbacks for blitzing linebackers.

The Steelers began training camp wondering if Steve McLendon could slide into the starting job. Or if they would have enough depth to ensure McLendon is physically fit during a possible playoff run.

McLendon will be the likely starter when the Steelers host Tennessee in the season opener Sept. 8. It's difficult to gauge McLendon's progress because he played only sparingly in the preseason opener against the New York Giants last Saturday.

McLendon expects to get more playing time when the Steelers travel to Washington to face the Redskins at FedEx Field on “Monday Night Football.”

The 6-foot-4, 320-pound McLendon doesn't appear to be bothered by the pressure of supplanting Hampton in the middle of a 3-4 defense ranked No. 1 the past two seasons, in part, because his predecessor has offered advice and encouragement.

“(Hampton) just told me to listen to (former backup Chris) Hoke and (defensive line coach John) Mitchell, and I'll be all right,” McLendon said. “If he sees that I've messed up, he'll tell me. Besides that, he doesn't get too much into football.”

McLendon is being pushed by Al Woods, Hebron Fangupo and second-year nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu, who recently came off the physically unable to perform list.

“It's all about competition,” McLendon said. “It's what we need to bring the best out of everybody.

“The only thing we can do — even the defensive ends — is play fast, play hard and play smart. We can be a great defense if we do those things.”

Mitchell and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau moved Woods from defensive end to add depth. Woods, who rotated mostly with Ta'amu against the Giants, had a productive game: six tackles, three assists, a sack and two tackles for losses.

“I need to get on that same level as the rest of those guys because if I get a chance to play there won't be a drop-off,” Woods said. “It's my chance to put my hands in the pile to contribute anyway I can. I'm trying to focus and not looking too far down the road. I'm really not worrying about the competition.”

While Woods was expected to perform better this preseason, Ta'amu seems to have rebounded from a troubled rookie season.

“I feel a lot better than I did last year,” said Ta'amu, who last fall pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and drunken driving. “I had no chance coming in at the weight I did. I can handle plays now because I can push through physically.

“Al and Steve are making plays, but I continue to fight to see where I'll finish at the end.”

Center Maurkice Pouncey is watching intently as the nose tackles battle for roster spots. After all, he has lined up opposite them every day at St. Vincent.

“Al and Steve learned a lot from Casey Hampton, and it makes practice hard going against good players,” Pouncey said.

McLendon attributed his improvement to facing Pouncey.

“I'm going against one of the best centers in the league,” McLendon said. “It's a constant battle between me and Pouncey. We are making each other better every day.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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