PITTSBURGH (AP) — Steve McLendon put his finger to his lips and tried to suppress a smile.
"Shhh, don't talk about me too much," the Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle said. "I don't want anybody talking about me too much."
Considering the way McLendon is playing in place of injured starter Casey Hampton, that's going to be difficult.
While Hampton continues his methodical comeback from offseason knee surgery — a return that hit a bit of a snag when the five-time Pro Bowler underwent a procedure recently to "fix" his left elbow — McLendon is blossoming into the heir apparent as the anchor of Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense.
Working extensively with the first team while Hampton heals, McLendon has provided a spark in the middle. He has five tackles and a sack in two games for Pittsburgh (No. 7 in the AP Pro32) and should have gotten credit for a half-sack of Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck in a 26-24 victory last Sunday.
"It doesn't matter," McLendon said. "It's just preseason."
Maybe, but it's also a glimpse into the future.
Though Hampton — who turns 35 on Labor Day — insists he'll be ready for the season opener in Denver, he's only played in all 16 games once since 2005. McLendon and rookie Alameda Ta'amu will be called on to spell Hampton to help keep the 12-year veteran fresh.
It's a role McLendon, who made the team as an undrafted free agent two years ago, is happy to accept. As solid as his preseason has been, McLendon has no illusions about what will happen when Hampton pulls over his No. 98 jersey and tells the Steelers he's ready to go.
"I'm still going to prepare like the starter, still practice like the starter, still play like the starter," McLendon said. "I'm just going to be behind Casey. I understand that."