by: Mark Kaboly, TribLIVE Updated:
PITTSBURGH - Steve McLendon spent the better part of the past four years -- which included more than a dozen transactions -- waiting for his opportunity to run out of the Heinz Field tunnel as the starting nose tackle for the Steelers.
You would figure that even the most hardened player -- one who has a resume that includes being released three times in a 33-day span -- would allow himself to soak in the moment.
Not Steve McLendon.
“I don't have time for that,” said McLendon, who supplants veteran Casey Hampton.
“Man, I've been here too long. It's just time for me to play. I've been waiting, and the time is finally here.”
McLendon will start only his second game Sunday, when the Steelers open the season at Heinz Field against Tennessee. He will be one of the few new faces on a talented and veteran defense that's finished in the top five in the NFL against the run in eight of the past nine seasons, while Hampton anchored the unit.
McLendon might not want to admit taking a moment or two to soak in the atmosphere of his first career home start, but defensive end Brett Keisel knows differently.
Keisel spent the first four years of his career waiting behind Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen.
“Once you finally get an opportunity to go out and play, it is like finally all that hard work you put in, getting to that point becomes worth it,” Keisel said. “Steve has done it, and he's put in the work, and he earned it. It wasn't given to him.”
McLendon admits that the feeling will be a little different Sunday, but won't allow himself to focus on anything else but his job.
“I have always prepared for this moment in time,” McLendon said. “It's an exciting challenge and an exciting time for me.”
McLendon's tune might change after Sunday.
Tennessee boasts an improved interior offensive line with the additions of guards Chance Warmack and Andy Levitre.
The Titans likely will attack McLendon with double teams from veteran center Rob Turner and either Warmack or Levitre early to see if McLendon can clog the middle of the defense like Hampton did for more than a decade.
“Let's face it, you don't design your game plan around who the other team's nose tackle is,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “Steve will have to step in, but he's done this. It isn't like he's never been out there on the field. I am not guessing on this. I've seen him do it.”
McLendon's best games were in 2011, when he filled in for an ailing Hampton in Arizona and again in the playoff game against Denver. McLendon played his most career snaps in those two games and combined for nine tackles, helping the Steelers hold the opposition to less than 4 yards per carry.
That success might be a difficult to come by against the Titans and running back Chris Johnson.
Even though the Steelers have been stingy with Johnson, not allowing him more than a 60 yards per game average, Johnson quickly can turn on out-of-position nose tackle into a game-changing play.
“Will he have some on-the-job training?” LeBeau said. “Sure. He is carrying the job full time now, so he's going to be out there more, and he'll learn more. I know he is going to play well.”
Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib