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McLendon looking to make strides in 2nd year as Steelers' nose tackle

| Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers defensive assistant Chris Hoke talks with nose tackle Steve McLendon during practice Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, in Latrobe.

Things didn't go as Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon planned in 2013.

He couldn't consistently occupy blockers the way his predecessor, Casey Hampton, did for years, and the Steelers defense slid from second to 21st against the run.

McLendon's first year as a starter was affected by nagging bumps and bruises, too. And the pressure of replacing a defensive stalwart was inescapable as he struggled to fit in on a unit whose success against the run often hinges on a nose tackle's ability to keep blockers off the inside linebackers.

“I don't like the way I ended last year,” said McLendon, who missed two games with an ankle injury but finished with 33 tackles. “I'm also disappointed with how our season turned out. It bothered everyone, but we can't look back.”

For now, McLendon, who is entering his fifth season, is in a holding pattern. The 6-foot-4, 320-pounder hasn't practiced since Friday. No explanation for his absence has been given other than coach Mike Tomlin giving him days off.

He spent much of Monday talking with former Steelers nose tackle Chris Hoke.

“I know sometimes it gets hard playing this sport,” McLendon said. “I feel this is one of the most difficult teams to make because we have so many different defenses to put in. You've got to find somebody to lean on.

“Chris Hoke is helping us tremendously. To have a former player back on the sideline is a blessing, so we have to take advantage of it.”

Hoke, who spent much of his career as Hampton's backup, has served as McLendon's mentor during training camp at St. Vincent.

“It was a great learning opportunity for (McLendon) last year,” Hoke said. “Right now everything is coming together for him because he's drawing off his experiences from last year.

“I talk to him about preparing for each week. It's a different mindset being a starter as it is being a backup. He's a humble guy who simply does his job. There's not a lot of flash to Steve.

“He's more confident in his technique and what he can do for this defense. He really is the anchor of this defense in the middle. If he does his job, forcing two people to block him, it'll be tough to run the ball against us.”

Hoke, though, is quick to remind everyone — including McLendon — that McLendon is not Hampton.

“Steve isn't trying to be Casey,” Hoke said. “We just need him to be at his best on the football field, and he'll make a name for himself.”

McLendon, it seems, is listening.

“I know what I don't want to do,” McLendon said, “and I know what I do need to do. I don't want to take any steps back. I want to stay ahead of the curve, so I'm making myself a better player.”

“My approach is to be able to make some progression from my first year as a starter to my second year. To do that, I need to focus on all the little things: pad level, quick feet and being strong at the point of attack. I need to take a step forward.”

McLendon leans on his faith. He said it enables him to keep his head up despite the inevitable comparisons to Hampton.

“I try to control the things I can control,” McLendon said. “I'm not the kind of guy that worries or stresses.”

McLendon's confidence has strengthened the faith his teammates have in his ability to control the line of scrimmage and defend the run.

“Steve was feeling his way through it last year because he was struggling with some injuries,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “I expect a lot out of Steve because this defense goes as far as he goes when it comes to stopping the run.

“I think this transition is reflective in the fact that he's taking more of a vocal role.”

“He knows what it takes after playing behind Casey,” second-year linebacker Jarvis Jones said. “He knows what it looks like to be a dominant player. He's got the big picture. It's just a matter of doing.”

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

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