PITTSBURGH — Steve McLendon always believed his moment would arrive. An undrafted rookie desperate to catch on with the Steelers as a practice squad player four years ago, this burly nose tackle had faith he would one day be the big man in the middle of Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense.
“You don’t come out here just to be a secondary guy,” McLendon said. “You come out here to be the greatest. That’s how I look at it.”
Now he’ll get his chance.
McLendon will inherit the space left by his departing mentors, Chris Hoke, who retired in 2011 due to an injury, and five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton, an unrestricted free agent. While the 27-year-old admits he’s a different player than the longtime fixtures in one of the league’s most close- knit locker rooms, that doesn’t mean he can’t be effective.
“The only thing I can do is be the typical Steve McLendon, and if you all would like to know the typical Steve McLendon, then I can tell you,” he said with a laugh.
In a perfect world, McLendon would love to combine Hampton’s power, Hoke’s football smarts and the speed of Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff.
“I changed my whole way of thinking this year,” McLendon said. “I’m no longer saying, ‘Good.’ I’m saying, ‘Great,’ because if you speak greatness, then greatness is going to come.”
The Steelers, who finished No. 1 in the NFL in total defense and second against the run in 2012, would probably be happy with competitive. McLendon split time with Hampton last season and recorded two sacks. The number of snaps he saw dropped off as the season progressed, leading him to focus on his conditioning in the offseason.
While still listed at 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, McLendon’s upper body looks thicker than ever. The black performance shirt McLendon wore underneath his jersey at organized team activities this week revealed not the massive gut that helped Hampton earn the nickname “Big Snack” but broad shoulders and very little jiggle.
McLendon’s evolving role on the field also marks growth off of it. He keeps in close touch with both Hoke and Hampton, talking about life more than football most of the time. Their relationship extends beyond the game, something he views as an important part of building chemistry.
It’s a mixture that’s significantly altered with Hampton no longer in his familiar spot in the locker room, one that leaves 34-year-old defensive end Brett Keisel as the line’s elder statesman.
“It’s weird to be the old guy on the block,” Keisel said. “I think it’s my obligation to help the younger guys the way the older guys helped me when I was young and dumb.”
Something Keisel thinks McLendon is not.
“We’ve seen flashes of him making big plays,” Keisel said. “It will be great to see it on a regular basis.”
The picture behind McLendon is jumbled. Al Woods and second-year player Alameda Ta’amu will battle for the backup spot. It’s a position Ta’amu appeared poised to inherit when Pittsburgh took him in the fourth round of the 2012 draft. Instead he struggled to get in shape then had an ugly run-in with police that ended with him being charged with several felonies and ultimately getting cut.
The Steelers brought Ta’amu back as a practice squad player and he hopes to have put his legal troubles — he was placed on probation — behind him.
“If I would have continued to do stupid stuff, I guess it would have been different,” Ta’amu said. “But I have stayed straight since that time, and I’ve gotten past it with support from my family, my teammates and the Steelers management.”
Ta’amu hopes to repay that patience with a more mature approach. He changed his number from No. 65 to No. 74 and spent some time after practice on Wednesday running wind sprints
“You have to do it,” Ta’amu said. “Anything extra helps you get better.”
That’s certainly the goal for Ta’amu, who is eager to live up to the standards set by the players who came before him. That includes avoiding the kind of mistakes that nearly derailed his career.
“I’m certainly ready to put all that behind me and continue to move forward,” he said. “I’m trying to do that, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job so far.”