- Scott Brown, ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter
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PITTSBURGH -- Since John Mitchell became the Steelers’ defensive line coach in 1994, Pittsburgh has led the NFL in rushing defense five times and finished in the top three a staggering 13 times. The Steelers allowed one 100-yard rusher in 50 games that spanned 2007-10, and teams simply didn’t run against them -- and sometimes didn’t even try.
The Steelers are giving up 125.2 rushing yards per game -- almost 35 more than last season -- and they rank 26th in the NFL in that category.
Some of the struggles in stopping the run can be traced to the growing pains Steve McLendon has experienced since taking over for five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton at nose tackle. But Mitchell is anything but frustrated with McLendon.
“Steve is still a young guy,” Mitchell said. “He’s learning how to play. He’s got to learn how to keep his pad level down. The guy has good effort. He’s got to be able to take from what he sees on tape in the meeting room onto the field, and a lot of young guys who haven’t played a lot can’t do that.”
Questions have been raised about whether McLendon, who is listed at 6-4, 280 pounds, is big enough to play nose tackle in a 3-4 defense, but Mitchell said size isn’t the issue with the fourth-year veteran.
It is a matter of McLendon's adjusting to the speed of the game and playing faster.
“He’s getting double-teamed almost every play and everything is happening so fast,” Mitchell said. “Until you get out there on Sunday and see the speed of the game you can’t simulate it in practice, I don’t care what you do. That’s happening to Steve a little and the more he plays, he’s going to get caught up with the speed of the game. He has all the other tools.”
Mitchell has molded under-the-radar players into Pro-Bowler caliber ones throughout his career.
Aaron Smith came to the Steelers as a raw, fourth-round draft pick out of a Division II school, and he developed into one of the best 3-4 defensive ends of his era. Brett Keisel, a seventh-round draft pick, also anchored the defensive line opposite Smith when the Steelers were impossible to run against.
There is no reason to think Mitchell can’t have similar success with McLendon, who made the Steelers as an undrafted free agent.
“Right now I’m really pleased where he’s at, and he’s going to be a good football player,” Mitchell said. “I tell guys, ‘You don’t have to be one today, next week as long as you’re making those steps every week you’re going to get there.’ ”