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Nose tackle McLendon has earned Steelers' trust

| Sunday, May 27, 2012, 12:30 a.m.
The Steelers' Steve McLendon during OTAs on the South Side May 23, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

John Mitchell doesn't arbitrarily hand out compliments; it's not his style. Instead, the Steelers' defensive line coach is known to motivate through intimidation.

So when Mitchell went out of his way last month after the Steelers drafted nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu to praise third-year undrafted free agent Steve McLendon, eyebrows were raised.

“Everybody wants to discard McLendon. Let me tell you this, hold your opinion until the season is over,” Mitchell said. “I'm just saying keep your opinion until after the season, (then) you make the decision.”

The Steelers already have made their decision.

They have full confidence in McLendon, who has been released almost as many times as he has recorded a tackle, if veteran Casey Hampton's surgically repaired knee isn't ready for the season opener Sept. 9.

“That comes from trust,” McLendon said. “That trust comes from doing everything right. You are not going to be perfect, but (Mitchell) saw that I came in day in and day out with my lunch pail and I was ready to work. Coach Mitch knows that I know my stuff.”

McLendon was asked to fill in at nose tackle last year, first when Chris Hoke was injured, then later when Hampton went down. In the two games McLendon played the most, the defense held Arizona to 73 rushing yards and Denver to 40 below its season average.

McLendon has caught the attention of not only the coaching staff but also some veterans.

“He might be the strongest dude on the defense,” offensive lineman Trai Essex said. “The man has a mean stiff-arm and gets inside of you. He is an exceptional athlete for his size.”

The knock on McLendon hasn't been his strength but his size.

He weighed 280 pounds in his first year with the Steelers. McLendon is still listed on the roster at that weight but now weighs 325 pounds to go with his 6-foot-4 frame.

“He is way too cut up to be a typical nose tackle,” Essex said. “There is not too much fat on that guy. This kid is going to be good.”

In a division where Haloti Ngata, Domata Peko and Phil Taylor look like fire plugs, McLendon is out to show different isn't necessarily bad when it comes to nose tackles.

“I am not going to look like what everybody wants me to look like,” he said. “A lot of nose tackles use their size as their strength. I use my power as my strength. I am not going to look like Casey Hampton. I feel like if I look good, I will play good.”

With Hampton likely to start the season on the physically unable to perform list and Ta'amu switching from end to nose in his rookie year, the Steelers have no reservations turning the position over to a guy they cut five times in a span of 13 months.

McLendon is confident in his abilities.

“My goal is to be great in every aspect of my game,” McLendon said. “If there is something that Coach Mitch sees that I need to get better at, I told him to let me know. All I want to do is get better.”

McLendon is learning the roles of the entire defense, which he feels will help him perform better in games. McLendon credits Hoke for helping him with the mental aspect of the position.

“The tough part is the mental part,” he said. “Knowing what to do and how to do and when to do it is important. I picked Hokie's brain every chance I got last year.”

McLendon has a specific concept of what kind of player he eventually wants to be.

“I want to be able to be smart like Hoke. I want to be quick like (Dallas') Jay Ratliff, and I want to be powerful and strong like Hamp,” McLendon said. “You put all that together, and I want that to be Steve McLendon.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mkaboly@tribweb.com.

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