By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers could get a big boost to their defensive line this week with an emphasis on big.
The Steelers 6-foot-1, 325-pound (low estimation) nose tackle Casey Hampton, who missed the past three games with a shoulder injury, is expected to practice Wednesday and play this week when the Steelers (5-2) face the New England Patriots (5-1) Sunday at 4:05 p.m. at Heinz Field.
“We’re going to look hard at Hines Ward (ankle) in terms of his participation and let that be our guide and also Casey Hampton,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday during his weekly press conference.
“I think Casey has taken a step and is scheduled to practice Wednesday, and we’ll see where that participation leads us. That would be a big shot in the arm for us up front defensively.”
Hampton initially was replaced by veteran Chris Hoke, but he suffered a stinger two weeks ago and has not yet returned. Tomlin said that it’s “status quo” for Hoke this week, which means that second-year pro Steve McLendon will get considerable playing time no matter what happens to Hampton.
McLendon replaced Hoke during the first half two weeks ago against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and he got his first NFL start this past week against the Arizona Cardinals. McLendon has six total tackles, one-half a sack and two quarterback hurries. He shared a sack with LaMarr Woodley a week ago against the Jaguars and added the two quarterback hurries last week at Arizona.
“I liked the contributions of some guys who were given opportunities to expand their roles, like Steve McLendon,” Tomlin said. “I thought he represented himself very well. That was a good sign for us up front, but we’re going to need those types of performances moving forward.”
Along with Hoke, the Steelers will be without outside linebacker James Harrison (eye), interior lineman Doug Legursky (toe surgery) and outside linebacker Jason Worilds (quad). Ward was injured last week, but he’s likely to play.
The only questionable player so far is rookie cornerback Curtis Brown, who Tomlin said: “has been experiencing some back spasms.” He could be limited early this week, which would hurt his game status since young guys need reps.
While Brown has been on the injured list more often than he has on the field, fellow rookie cornerback Cortez Allen from The Citadel has worked his way into the Steelers specialty defense when they go with four cornerbacks. Starters Ike Taylor and William Gay are joined by Keenan Lewis in the nickel, but Allen played some snaps in the secondary ahead of veteran Bryant McFadden.
This is a defensive set that the Steelers might employ this week against the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady, who has torched them over the years.
“He’s just very good physically and mentally,” Tomlin said. “He’s very talented in both areas, and he’s tough to trick. He makes quick decisions (and) has pin-point accuracy, and he has the arm to do the things that he desires to do.”
The Steelers have not won at home to the Patriots since they beat two undefeated teams on consecutive weekends in New England and the Philadelphia Eagles in 2004. The Pats had an NFL-record 18-game unbeaten streak at that time, but the Steelers won 34-20.
Including post-season wins in the 2001 and 2004 AFC championship games, the Patriots have won seven times in the past nine meetings against the Steelers. Along with the regular-season game in 2004, the Steelers won a game at New England when Brady was injured and Matt Cassell was at quarterback.
“I’m not going to assume that our guys understand the nature of this matchup and its history,” Tomlin said. “Many of our guys weren’t really a part of that history when you start talking about ’01 and ’04 and some of those things. So, it’s not similar in that way (to the Ravens).”
But fans certainly have the nearly the same level of disdain for the Patriots that they do for the Ravens.