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Steelers trying out a new man in the middle

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Scott Brown
Friday, Oct. 21, 2011

Only a technicality will prevent Steve McLendon from making his first career start Sunday. That is how the second-year defensive tackle is approaching the Steelers' upcoming game at Arizona.

McLendon said he expects to be the No. 1 nose tackle against the Cardinals, and he will start unless the Steelers open in a nickel defense instead of their base 3-4.

"There's going to be excitement. There's going to be nerves. That's part of it," McLendon said Thursday. "After that first snap, that first play, all of that will go out the window."

Although the offensive linemen have drawn much of the attention among injured Steelers, the defensive line hasn't exactly been immune to getting hurt.

Usual starting nose tackle Casey Hampton has not practiced this week because of a shoulder injury. The 11th-year veteran is not expected to play Sunday.

Chris Hoke, Hampton's backup, also has not practiced this week after leaving last week's game with a stinger. Hoke is trying to regain enough strength in his shoulders to receive medical clearance to play.

"I'm doing everything I can to be ready," Hoke said.

Not that McLendon simply will be considered the last man standing if Hampton and Hoke are unable to suit up against the Cardinals.

"That's one person I'm not worried about," Hampton said. "He's big, strong, physical; it's just a matter of him getting some experience because all the tools of being a really, really good nose tackle are there for him. (If the Cardinals) test him, that'll be a mistake because he'll definitely be ready to go."

That is high praise for a player the Steelers signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009 and released from their practice squad his first season with the team.

The 6-foot-4, 280-pound McLendon has relied on resiliency as much as brute strength to get here. The former Troy standout played his way onto the 53-man roster early last season and appeared in seven games.

McLendon and Hoke made the team this season, even though conventional thinking had them battling for one roster spot.

The Steelers have needed all three nose tackles. McLendon played extensively in a 17-13 win against Jacksonville because of Hoke's injury.

He stood his ground in the middle and, in the process, showed that he is not merely a stop-gap at a position the Steelers need a long-term replacement for Hampton, 34, and Hoke, 35.

"There's only one Casey, but I think that Steve has got great strength," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said of McLendon, 24. "He has improved almost daily since the day that he came here. You can never have too many quality players; you can never have too much depth, and Steve is one of the reasons that we have good depth. The more that he actually plays, the better he'll get."

McLendon, who has been credited with a half-sack this season, doesn't appear to be lacking confidence.

"You've got to play fast. You've got to play hard. You've got to play smart, make sure you've got to try to dominate (who is) in front of you," McLendon said. "My teammates are depending on me to step up and play big."

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