Steelers' Pope boasts red-zone pedigree
By Mark Kaboly
Published: Tuesday, June 5, 2012, 7:54 p.m.
Leonard Pope can block — that's evident by his 6-foot-8, 264-pound frame. His 24 receptions with the Kansas City Chiefs last year and five touchdowns with Arizona a couple of years before that indicates he also can catch the ball.
So the only question when the Steelers plucked Pope off the unrestricted free-agent market in April to fill a need as their second tight end was how he would perform in high-pressure situations that come with playing for a Super Bowl-contending team.
Actually, Pope answered that concern just about a year ago with much higher stakes than an outcome of a football game.
Pope raced out of the Troy Hill Apartments in his hometown of Americus, Ga., after hearing screaming coming from Anne Moore that her 6-year-old son, Bryson, was drowning. Without hesitation, a fully dressed Pope jumped in the water and rescued the boy from the bottom of the pool.
“I guess you can check off the ‘Performing-Under-Pressure' box for him with that one,” tight end Heath Miller said.
Now, the Steelers are hoping they can check off the “Red-Zone Woes” box for their offense.
Despite being the fourth-ranked offense in the AFC and 12th overall, it didn't transition into points. The Steelers were 21st in total points, averaging 20.3 per game, and a lot of that was because their offense stalled in the red zone. The Steelers scored touchdowns only 50 percent of the time they got inside the 20-yard line, which was 17th in the league.
Pope is expected to alleviate that problem this year.
“I don't know, man. I'm just out here doing whatever Coach asks me to do; whatever I can do to help the team,” Pope said.
The red zone would be a start.
Out of Pope's nine career touchdowns, seven have come inside the red zone — including four his first year with Todd Haley as the Cardinals offensive coordinator in 2007. Pope also has a penchant for moving the chains. Nearly half of his 102 career catches have been for first downs.
“I try to tell people, ‘Please don't sleep on me. When you sleep on me, that's when I get you,' ” Pope said. “You think I'm going to block all day, then I'll run a route past you. You think I'm going to catch all day, I'll block.”
Haley is well-versed in what Pope can do. It's not by coincidence that the first, and only, free-agent signing the Steelers made during the offseason was Pope.
Pope played two years in Arizona under Haley, and when Haley became head coach in Kansas City in 2009, he brought Pope with him.
“I love Todd,” Pope said. “I know a lot of people see the negative picture of him yelling on the sidelines and all that kind of stuff, but he's a real humble person and has a great passion for what he does.”
Pope will back up Miller, but he will see plenty of time in two-tight end sets and will be inserted into the red-zone offense.
“He is a good player, a solid player who has been playing a long time,” Miller said. “He has been around Coach Haley for a long time, and that's a big plus to be able to bounce some things off him.”
After Pope and Miller, the tight end position is lean with youngsters Weslye Saunders, Jamie McCoy and Wes Lyons. Saunders will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy.
“This is a guy that is a veteran football player, that is extremely hungry and wants to be the reason why we win,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said about Pope. “All of those things are attractive. Obviously he has a history with Todd, which is an added bonus.”
Mark Kaboly is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can bereached at email@example.com
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