Steelers Shape Shifters: What\’s The Story With These New Looks?

By Christopher DiMarino

This is a time of the offseason where finding Steeler specific news in the general media is tough. Most are discussing top draft picks and key free agent transitions, yet outside of Warren Sapp\’s belligerence and the alleged friction between Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger, the media is avoiding the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most part. The biggest stories coming out of Steeler specific news sites lately seem to revolve around players making drastic changes. Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon and Trai Essex have all changed shape this offseason. How much of an effect will it have on their on-field play and the Steelers success in 2012?

I\’ll start with McLendon. The big reports showed him jumping from 280lbs up all the way to 325lbs! I read a little too far into his weight increase and Dave brought up the valid point that he was likely somewhere near this weight towards the end of last season. The weight delta or timeline are trivial, the importance lies in what this means for him on the field. McLendon has big shoes to fill being the injury replacement for Casey Hampton, and he\’s also trying to prove that he can be a franchise nose tackle for years to come. He\’s no stranger to the field and has the backing of defensive line coach John Mitchell in addition. The key variable in this situation is McLendon. Being the nose tackle for the Steelers is both an important and prestigious position. It can be said that his performance will directly contribute to the successes of this defense in 2012.

Though many won\’t admit it, the effects of nose tackles are mostly mental. Teams know that they had to double Hampton which is exactly what the Steelers wanted. The nose tackle must occupy two blockers and in the better case stalemate their motion. When a team is preparing for McLendon, they might not give him that respect. This will give the former undrafted free agent the upper hand to prove he is worthy of that double team. To gauge his success early, watch how many times opposing teams are doubling him, and when they don\’t, how much penetration he\’s able to get. He must be a space occupier and whether extra bulk will help him with that remains to be seen.

Sticking with the defensive line, Hood has had the most impressive change from a football standpoint. If you\’ve listened to the podcast where David and Dave interviewed Hood\’s trainer Bill Nichol, then you were probably astounded by how much of an improvement he made this offseason. I know that he is a professional athlete, and that being in top physical form is to be expected, but Hood isn\’t a slouch. He has a wide reputation as a workout warrior who is constantly in the weight room. Add in the fact that he was a first round pick and tell me that if that caliber player increased his strength you wouldn\’t be excited.

The key with Hood has always been for him to translate raw ability into results on the football field. While he doesn\’t need to rack up the sacks, he does need to provide constant pressure. In fact, the reason why I think Brett Keisel is so effective, aside from his long arms, is that he has a very consistent motor. Pass rushing is a game-long battle against the opposing offensive line and he needs to wear down his man. Look for him to be able to constantly deliver pressure and keep the quarterback confined to the pocket. If he can do this on a consistent basis and blow up some run plays in the backfield, then his reputation as a one gap player will be irrelevant.

Essex has the most curious transition; he lost a boat load of weight. The perplexing part is understanding if that will be a benefit or a detriment for him. While losing weight from a health stand point is always important, his performance on the football field might be affected. The key here is that the Steelers were concerned about him being overweight and he dealt with it. From an organizational standpoint, I believe the Steelers are very happy with him, but once training camp starts it will be a full out competition for him against second round pick Mike Adams.

Essex is an average height for and tackle at 6\’5, so the loss of weight might affect him against bull rushes. I want to remind everyone that this change could have been at a massive change to his strength and conditioning, but his playing ability will likely have to adjust. I don\’t like getting overly speculative, but if we use the picture of him on Steelers Depot as a reference, it looks like he lost enough weight to starkly affect his playing style.

Essex, Hood and McLendon all had very different transitions. McLendon\’s transformation might be old news. Hood has always been a workout warrior, but took it to the next level. Essex changed from a player with weight concerns to an underweight athlete who might have to change his game. At the very least, all three guys will be exciting to watch this year. While reps are guaranteed for some more than others, all are involved in positional battles. I believe all three will be better players because outside of the work involved in weight loss or muscle gain, the one constant that remains is very strong will power and effort to succeed.

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