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2013 Steelers position preview: Defensive line

Gone is Casey Hampton, and his replacement, Steve McLendon is so different from the man considered the best zero-technique tackle in franchise history, it's hard not to notice him. Opponents will end up feeling the same way in 2013.

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

Casey Hampton appeared to be, for lack of a less-cliche (but no less fitting), a gentle giant.

Rare times they were when Hampton was royally ticked off. When he was, he reached a gear in which even fans were afraid to look in his direction. He led by example and through consistency.

There's little question he's the best zero-technique defensive lineman to don a Steelers jersey.

The fact Hampton will not be on the Steelers' roster at the end of training camp for the first time since 2000 is a nostalgic end of an era as well as a somewhat frightening reminder the Steelers defense is in flux.

Talented, no doubt. But unknown and unproven.

It's actually the perfect situation for the nose tackle of the (immediate) future, Steve McLendon.

In many ways, he appears the opposite of Hampton. A less girthy midsection but still a little slow off the snap. Taller, more of a muscular physique.

And he's a talker.

Everyone knew Casey Hampton. No one knows Steve McLendon outside SteelerNation. He first dipped his toes into national attention last training camp when questions regarding Hampton's future in Pittsburgh arose. Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell spoke well of the fourth-year player from Troy, saying he's working hard, and could surprise some people this year.

The only surprise was how few snaps McLendon ended up getting, despite that preseason praise. It shows what talk is worth.

Seemingly from left field, news circulated toward the end of the restricted free agency period the Green Bay Packers were enamored with McLendon as well - enough to potentially challenge the lowest level of RFA tender given to McLendon by the Steelers. If he would have received an offer from Green Bay, and the Steelers chose not to match it (a possibility, considering the perilous salary cap situation they were in), all that potential would pack his 325 pounds and move it to the Land of Cheese.

Whether McLendon was just using the trip to leverage the Steelers into a long-term deal, or the Packers were legitimately interested in his services, the Steelers bit on his bluff. They inked him to a three-year, $7.5 million contract to serve as Hampton's back-up - the first and only back-up Hampton has had who wasn't named Chris Hoke in the time he spent with the team.

Big shoes to fill from such a big man. And he's showing more of his contradictory status in comparison to Hampton with a brashness and confidence Hampton had to have had, but didn't show. In fact, McLendon is edging more into Joey Porter territory, the loquacious and confrontational mouthpiece of the Steelers' successful teams in the last decade.

McLendon is the centerpiece, literally and figuratively, of a Steelers defensive line brimming with potential. The question for him, as well as defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward, is if they really are, together, the next generation of a proud franchise's legacy of dominant line players.

The mystique about the Steelers is the legacy the franchise has had at running back, or at center. To an extent, wide receiver gets thrown in there. Obviously, there are the linebackers.

What about the defensive line? "Mean" Joe Greene is arguably the best defensive player of all time. The Steel Curtain is legendary. Hampton combined with Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith to make up a nucleus that made running the ball tougher on opponents than getting a plate of home fries past Hampton's nose unscathed.

McLendon, an undrafted free agent in 2009, is flanked by Hood, a former first round pick, and heading into training camp, most likely Keisel on the right side. Another former first round pick, Heyward, waits in the wings to unseat Keisel, who will turn 35 a few days before the season begins.

If Heyward is to be the team's top back-up, depth will definitely be a concern. At the same time, if Heyward can show he understands his assignments, and he can rotate in to spell the starters and keep the line fresh, a position that is fairly considered a question mark could turn into one of its biggest strengths. McLendon looked dominant in a good percentage of his snaps last season, and if he can add some more lower body strength to help anchor his position against double teams, he can be effective against the run. He's already shown an outstanding ability in rushing the passer.

Hood played far better at the end of last season than he has in his career. Keisel may have lost a step over the years, but his knowledge of the game and the defense is unparalleled on the defense, and can still be a positive contributor.

It may not currently be the mirror image of the Steel Curtain, but they are working to forge their own identity, and considering the individual ability each player has shown, this could be a strength of the Steelers in 2013.

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