Before I begin, I must admit that I have been quite pleased with the development of Steve McLendon over the last year and a half. A tip of the cap must go his hard work, as well as to all of those involved in helping him to emerge from an unheralded and raw UDFA in 2009, to what appears to be a player on the verge of a solid career in the league. Excitement over McLendon’s potential and the recent selection of the massive Alameda Ta’amu in the 5th Round of April’s Draft aside, there is another Nose Tackle on Pittsburgh’s roster which has not gotten as much notoriety as the two youngsters: Pro Bowler Casey “Big Snack” Hampton.
While “Snack” is still on the mend from his knee and recent elbow injuries, the team was nevertheless confident enough to take him off of the PUP List. When “Snack” will ultimately return has yet to be determined, but his status should be an intriguing storyline as the team heads into the 2012 season. Regardless, I cannot help but be pleased at the way the Steelers have been able to set themselves up at the Nose Tackle position.
State of the Youngsters
As the Week 1 projected starter, Steve McLendon appears locked, loaded, and ready to make a name for himself. Poised to break-out, entering a contract season, McLendon has not only gained the confidence of veterans like Hampton, but the praise of his position coach John Mitchell. After a solid start to the 2012 preseason, the stage is set for an increase in McLendon’s playing time and him producing at a higher level overall. As the Nose Tackle with the most experience plus full health on the roster, big things will be on tap for McLendon as he gets ready to take advantage of his long awaited opportunity in 2012.
Behind McLendon is the Rookie Ta’amu, a guy walking in to an almost perfect situation for a young 0-Technique, let alone any 3-4 Defensive Lineman in general. Because Ta’amu will likely not be pressed into the starting role any time soon, the Rookie from Washington will be given adequate time to learn the ins and outs of the 3-4 system. During said time, Ta’amu will learn behind one of the best position Coaches and best Defensive Coordinators in the game. The Rookie might see some spot-duty in Goal Line and short-yardage packages early, and his size will definitely be of great advantage to the team. Plus, as Chris Hoke proved, an effective backup Nose Tackle is always a nice thing for a 3-4 team to have on their roster.
State of Big Snack & Why a Decreased Role Helps Everybody
Like Ta’amu, the soon to be 35 year old “Snack” should be the biggest benefactor from the depth at the 0-Technique position. The more playing time that McLendon (and possibly Ta’amu) will see over the course of this season will most importantly allow for “Snack” to stay consistently fresh throughout the regular season. In turn, if Hampton is able to stay healthy and properly rested/conditioned, it should inevitably lead to more effective play, and a more in shape “Snack” come the postseason (hopefully).
Do not get me wrong, #98 is not the 2005 Team co-M.V.P. version of himself in an athletic sense. But Hampton still possesses the talent to be effective in small doses. Also working in “Snack’s” favor will be the fact that the former Longhorn knows the 0-Technique role inside-and-out in LeBeau’s Defense. Because of his knowledge, Hampton will not require the same number of reps to prepare for gamedays like a McLendon or Ta’amu, and should be ready from a mental perspective to do his job when his number is called. and should still have enough left in the proverbial “tank” for one more season.
Of course, for Hampton to be properly rested and playing effectively in small yet important doses hinges on his ability to stay healthy. I know that I will be rooting hard for Hampton’s return and an effective season, as 2012 could very well be his last season with the club. I understand that the shelf-life of a 0-Technique in the league is very short, and guys like “Snack” and Vince Wilfork are definitely the exceptional exceptions to the rule. Although McLendon and Ta’amu might be the future at Nose Tackle for this franchise, Hampton still has the capability to play some solid football and contribute this season. And while he might not be the star and Pro Bowler he once was, #98 still can still help this team if his rotund frame can survive the rigors of a 13th season in professional football.
Who knows? Maybe Hampton can parlay his reduced role into tacking an extra season or two onto an already terrific career. His presence would definitely be appreciate to bridge the gap from “old” to “young.” As of now, all we can do is wait, then watch and see whether or not Hampton can get on the field, and whether or not he can stay healthy. I will say however, the Steelers have done a nice job preparing for the future at the Nose Tackle position.