PITTSBURGH -- Steve McLendon has added 20 pounds since the end of last season but the Steelers nose tackle dropped weight in another sense.
After struggling with expectations from replacing a five-time Pro Bowler, McLendon said he is no longer weighed down by the pressure of taking over for Casey Hampton at nose tackle.
And McLendon certainly felt the pressure last season though much of it was self-imposed.
“Think about it,” McLendon said Thursday after the Steelers' final practice of the week. “You've got a Hall of Famer in waiting and I'm coming in to play right after him. That's pressure. You know what the legend is behind that guy.
"Everybody knows what Casey was. I've seen the man play. There's nothing else like him. I'm far from Casey. I'm never going to try to be Casey. The only thing I can do is work every day, do my best and just be the best Steve that I can be.”
Doing that led McLendon to the ironic decision that he has to become more like Hampton to thrive at a thankless but vital position in the Steelers' 3-4 defense.
The fourth-year veteran concluded that the weight he played at last season was simply not enough for him to consistently stand his ground in the middle of the Steelers' defensive line.
“I can't be down there at 310 (pounds), trying to play a spot where guys are 330-plus,” said McLendon, who recorded 23 tackles and nine quarterback pressures last season. “I need to be heavy just like them and be able to move faster and quicker than them.”
McLendon said he did not compromise any quickness by packing on the extra pounds. And the former undrafted free agent thinks he will play faster this season simply because he has rid himself of the burden of trying to be Hampton, one of the best nose tackles of his generation.
“The pressure of last year came on strong in the middle (of the season) because you never know how much it takes to be a starter,” McLendon said. “It's not all physical, it's mostly mental. Sometimes you try to do too much. You've just got to try to play your technique and do what's best for the team, do what's inside the defense.”
McLendon staying within himself could go a long way toward shoring up a defense that allowed 115.6 rushing yards per game last season.
That number was as astounding as it was alarming considering the Steelers have finished in the top three in the NFL in rushing defense 13 times since John Mitchell took over as defensive line coach in 1994.
Mitchell is among those who have given McLendon a vote of confidence. He has also told McLendon to relax, play his game and not try to be Casey Hampton.
“My coaches weren't expecting me to do that,” McLendon said as he reflected on last season. “They were expecting me to go out there and play hard, play fast and play hard, and that's all I should have been doing.”