Kovacevic: L.T. the X-factor in takeaways
There isn't much to glean from football in shorts, but that hasn't lessened the fun at the Steelers' offseason training activities when watching that little No. 22 squirt through the line, spin around defenders and sprint into open grass untouched.
“Alley Cat!” Mike Tomlin booms from the sideline.
The cat in question is Chris Rainey, the 5-foot-9 running back and fifth-round draft pick out of Florida, and he's a stick of dynamite each time he touches the ball. Might be even faster than Mike Wallace.
Just ask him.
“I'm confident I am the fastest,” Rainey will beam, “but I'm not going to say any names.”
Can he play defense?
I'm kidding, of course, but one thought I had as OTAs opened their second week Tuesday on a steamy South Side was that this offense could have enough speed to bend the time-and-space continuum. It will have Wallace, Antonio Brown and maybe Rainey if Tomlin and Todd Haley can carve out a scatback — or “Cat-back” — role. It's elite athleticism whichever way Ben Roethlisberger turns.
But my second thought was that the projected starting defense is shaping up to be … well, gentlemen, let's see those birth certificates …
Safeties: Troy Polamalu (31), Ryan Clark (32)
Cornerbacks: Ike Taylor (32), Keenan Lewis (26)
Linebackers: James Harrison (34), Larry Foote (31), LaMarr Woodley (27), Lawrence Timmons (26)
Line: Casey Hampton (34), Brett Keisel (33), Ziggy Hood (25)
Even with James Farrior gone, that's an average age of 30.1, compared to 25.2 on offense.
Sure, the defense still has the big names, and that's great. There isn't a team in the NFL that wouldn't embrace Polamalu, Harrison, Hampton and Keisel, even in their 30s.
And sure, the Steelers collectively boasted the league's No. 1 defense in 2011. Fewest points allowed. Fewest yards per game.
But there's more to this, and we've all seen it.
We saw Tim Tebow run up 316 yards and real, live NFL quarterbacks fare even better.
We saw three 100-yard rushers after one in the previous 50 games.
Above all, we saw the league-low 15 takeaways: 11 interceptions and four fumble recoveries. This after pretty much the same players had a superb 35 takeaways in 2010.
Those are all glaring signs of a group that had lost its edge. They performed well in the X's-and-O's sense, filled holes and finished tackles. But they no longer could make the “splash play,” per Tomlin's term. They no longer had that X-factor, that singular force to wreak havoc both on the field and with opponents' playbooks.
And that begs a question it's not too soon to ask: Who will change that?
It still could be Harrison, Woodley or Polamalu if healthy, obviously, but health loomed large for all three last year.
My choice: Timmons.
(Waits for eyes to stop rolling all across Steelers Nation.)
No question, Timmons' expected breakout last year was a dud. His tackles plummeted from 149 in 2010 to just 91. He brashly predicted 18 sacks and backed that up with, um, two. He failed to force a solitary fumble. But that's largely because he bounced from inside to outside to cover for Harrison and Woodley being hurt, a tough move to make in training camp let alone from game to game.
Tomlin and his staff still have legitimate cause to set sky-high goals for Timmons. His positional coach, Keith Butler, calls him “one of the better linebackers in the league,” and it's hard to disagree, at least in potential. Timmons has a rare combination of size, strength and speed that make him the Steelers' most explosive big man. And with how he'll be used in Dick LeBeau's scheme, he's just as likely to rush the quarterback as to drop into coverage and pick him off. Big play either way.
So, about that breakout …
“You know, I always go into a season wanting to have a breakout, and it's that way this year, too,” No. 94 said yesterday after practice. “I want to go out and start with a bang, show my team what I can do.”
And about the team getting more takeaways …
“That's going to start with me. It starts right here at these practices, getting the details down, then getting the job done.”
It's overdue. Let's see it.
Let's also see other livelier legs contribute. Let's see if Lewis can out-perform the slower William Gay he's replacing. Let's see more of Cam Heyward (23), Steve McLendon (26), Stevenson Sylvester (23) and Jason Worilds (24). Let's give a shot to hyper-athletic corner Curtis Brown (23), who has dazzled at these OTAs.
Make it a competition in Latrobe: Whoever collects the most footballs wins.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can bereached at firstname.lastname@example.org.