I have been very interested to see the reaction of Steeler Nation (or at least the BTSC corner of it) after Thursday night’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. There are those, and you know who you are, who are panicking and have already written off the offensive line, Ziggy Hood, and possibly the season. Then there are those who have a “wait and see” attitude, feeling it is too early to judge Mike Adams or David DeCastro or Alameda Ta’amu based upon a very limited sample size.
But we can all agree there were bright spots in the game, I trust. There were players who showed something we didn’t expect to see, or more than we expected to see—players whose place in the lineup or even the roster is not assured. Here are a few of the “above the line” players who stood out to me on Thursday night:
DT Steve McLendon
Given my parameters, one might think McLendon shouldn’t be on this list, as it has been assumed for some time now he will start if Casey Hampton is still on the PUP list at the beginning of the season. However, the Steelers drafted a DT, Alameda Ta’amu, who was expected to go in the second or third round, although they apparently got a bargain by getting him in the fourth. McLendon, on the other hand, is a 2009 UDFA, and one who has always suffered from the designation “undersized.” So although McLendon has a great deal more NFL experience than Ta’amu, it is at least theoretically possible for Ta’amu to win the job. For that matter, Hampton could be back for the season opener and play all 16 games, although I think this is a highly unlikely outcome.
McLendon showed up to camp this season looking very much like an NFL nose tackle. Although Steelers.com still lists his official weight as 280, it’s quite obvious he is more like 320, and ripped at that. He clearly hasn’t lost agility or speed with the added muscle, and he used everything to his advantage on Thursday night. There is perhaps no better way to judge the impact he had than to note he was named the Steelers Digest Player of the Week. As Bob Labriola said:
His night didn’t last very long, but when he was on the field, Steve McLendon was productive. Starting at nose tackle, McLendon played barely a half, but he made it count, with three tackles, including one for loss, plus a sack of Michael Vick on a third down to force a punt during a first half in which the defense allowed only 49 yards of offense and a single third-down conversion.
OLB Adrian Robinson
In contrast to Steve McLendon, who is a lock to make the team, at any rate, whether he ends up a starter or not, is Adrian Robinson. Another UDFA, this time in 2012, Robinson was the heart of the Temple defense. Although he played DE, he was often asked to drop back and cover a tight end or running back, and this, combined with his size, led most to feel he would end up as an OLB in the NFL. He had a reputation at Temple as a hard worker and solid citizen.
On Thursday, coming into the game late, he showed determination and grit, ending up in the Eagles’ backfield on several occasions. Although he was clearly in need of a breather at one point, he kept on ticking. Robinson was admittedly dominating the left side of the third or fourth string Philly players, but he put himself in a position to get more looks from the coaching staff. In the meantime, he’s learned the difference between conditioning and what James Harrison calls “game conditioning.” And as Harrison says, you can only develop game conditioning in games. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get the opportunity to develop a good bit more of it next week.
DT Al Woods
Although he was drafted in 2010, Woods has already spent time on four different teams. A fourth-round pick by New Orleans, he was cut that September and immediately signed to the Steelers practice squad. Tampa Bay signed him to their roster in early November of 2010, and cut him at the end of the following training camp. He was claimed off waivers by the Seahawks, but became a “free agent” in November. The Steelers claimed him the following day, and he’s still here.
He was most notable at Lincoln Field for his heads-up interception of a hastily-thrown ball, and he returned it 53 yards before the Eagles caught up with him and took him down. If he could have made it an additional four yards, the outcome of the game might have been different. But it’s hard to complain; 53 yards is a seriously long way for a man that big to run. He kept a firm hold on the ball in the face of attempts to punch it out, which also showed considerable poise.
All in all, Woods is another guy who I think deserves a longer look. He wasn't just, ahem, a one-interception pony; he clearly knew his assignments, and if he hadn’t shed his blockers and stayed alert he wouldn’t have been in position to grab the gift-wrapped ball.
A lot of other guys had good nights overall. CB Cortez Allen continued to impress. RB Chris Rainey was as speedy and elusive as advertised. OLB Brandon Johnson brought pressure and had a pass defensed and an open field tackle. Emmanuel Sanders looked like the player the Steelers expected him to be before his foot problems took him out of the lineup. Marquis Maze was the most impressive returner to my eyes, and Daniel Hrapman nailed his first NFL field goal attempt, way more than a gimme at 43 yards.
Next week will provide another body of evidence on all of these young men. It will also be exciting to see who else steps up to the plate in a more dramatic fashion next week, and who learned from their mistakes and mischances on Thursday.