The Steelers game of Musical Linemen continues.
Second-year NT Steve McLendon will get the first start of his career when the Steelers travel to Arizona in Week 7. Casey Hampton has been ruled out of his third consecutive game, and it appears Chris Hoke will miss it as well.
To put this into context, the last time the Steelers started a nose tackle not named Hampton or Hoke was Kendrick Clancy in Week 6 of the 2001 season.
The Steelers won that Monday Night game, incidentally.
The fact that streak ends really should come as no surprise, considering the amount of injuries the Steelers linemen - offensive and defensive - have suffered this year.
The offensive line has had three different players start at left tackle - Max Starks, Trai Essex and Jonathan Scott - three different starters at left guard (Chris Kemoeatu, Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky), two different starters at right guard (Legursky and Foster), and three different starters at right tackle (Willie Colon, Marcus Gilbert and Scott).
Through six weeks, the Steelers have yet to start the same offensive line twice, and have replaced a new starter from the previous week in every game. C Maurkice Pouncey - who will play Sunday after suffering an elbow injury in practice this week - is the only player to start all six games at the same position.
The defensive line has had more consistency than its offensive counterpart, but it's still not exactly a ringing endorsement of health. McLendon is the third nose tackle to start this year in five games - the Steelers started in the nickel formation where there isn't a nose tackle in Week 2.
DE Aaron Smith will miss his third consecutive game, matching Hampton for most along the defensive line. DE Brett Keisel missed Weeks 3 and 4.
The injuries to the veterans are forcing the younger players on the field.
The Steelers typically haven't had defensive rookies play much, especially through the first half of the season. Rookie Cameron Heyward is seeing considerably more snaps than fellow first-round pick, Ziggy Hood, did in his rookie year of 2009. Through six games in 2009, Hood played 29 snaps. Heyward is at 73, and will likely play a lot more in Week 7. With only one nose tackle active against Arizona, should anything happen to McLendon, Hood would likely move inside in the Steelers base defense, and Heyward and Hood would be the ends.
This could end up being an advantage for the Steelers. Every team suffers injuries, and what matters is how a team plays around them. They've had the opportunity to play several linemen in different positions, both starting and substituting in-game, so they have a very good sense of the talent they have available. While it's not ideal to rotate linemen in-and-out they way they've been forced to, it does help create a sense of unity; if one guy goes down, someone will step up. They're all much more versatile than where they were when they started.
For the Steelers' sake, let's hope the test doesn't continue any further.