Kovacevic: Foote's loss had ripples to the roots

| Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 11:09 p.m.

“There's a level of vulnerability that comes from athletics. The humbling feeling of giving everything you have and still not being good enough.”

Vince Williams, Steelers

An NFL linebacker wrote that earlier this week. On Twitter, no less. You know, that famously overflowing reservoir of 140-character wisdom and profundity.

Don't know about you, but when I see a pearl like that amid an autumn in which the local franchise is 2-6 and halfway to nowhere, when the outfit is being questioned top to bottom, when even a truly cosmic thinker like Troy Polamalu is reduced to mere shrugs … I'm thinking maybe it's time to go micro rather than macro.

Maybe the real answers are more up close and personal.

So, about that tweet ...

“I'm a creative writing major,” Williams began explaining to me a couple days ago in the Steelers' locker room. “Can you tell?”

Well, let's just say I wasn't about to bug William Gay for the ethereal meaning of his tweet the other day: “dang homie you don't even follow ya boi smh!!!”

No, this Williams tweet was something that couldn't have been easy for a professional athlete to type, much less a rookie trying to forge his way in the macho, Incognito-littered world of football.

But this young man meant it exactly as you see it. No apologies.

“There is a vulnerability. There is a humbling,” Williams continued. “You know, I feel fortunate to be doing something I love for a living. My mom, she's had a job she didn't love, but she worked to provide for us.”

Vel Williams was a service worker at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

“Me? I'm out there on an NFL field, starting for the Pittsburgh Steelers and doing everything I can. I'm pushing so hard. As hard as I can. But sometimes … that's not enough.”

Williams never should have been in this spot. He was a sixth-round draft pick out of Florida State, he emerged from Latrobe as the Steelers' fourth-string inside linebacker, and he was penned down for special teams and shut-up-and-learn.

But all that changed when the 12-year veteran Larry Foote went down in the Sept. 8 opening loss to the Titans, lost for the season with a torn triceps.

You can argue, really, that everything changed.

Just follow the dominoes …

• Lawrence Timmons, the other inside linebacker, had to assume Foote's playcalling duties and most of his pass coverage, thus limiting Timmons' blitzes.

• Steve McLendon, in his first full year at nose tackle, had been groomed to carve a path to the backfield for Timmons. It was supposed to be a big part of the front seven's semi-new approach. Not anymore.

• Troy Polamalu began hugging the line of scrimmage, miles off his safety position. Some of that was the trademark freelancing, but mostly it was for run support. As Polamalu told me pointedly after the loss in London, “If we don't stop the run, I'll stay there all year.” He's still there.

• Ryan Clark, maybe the Steelers' best defender in 2012, suddenly is among their worst. But he's also been forced to cover two safety spots, and the results have been … well, you saw the New England game.

So many of us, myself included, have been woefully guilty in underestimating the impact of Foote's loss as compared to that of Maurkice Pouncey and others. Maybe it's because he slipped some last season. Maybe it's because he's 34.

Some knew what the loss meant right away.

“It's been huge,” Clark said. “It's changed the face of our defense. It's changed the communication of our defense. It's changed the plan that we entered the 2013 season with as a whole. It's changed the whole thing. I make sure to point that out with every opportunity, not as an excuse but almost as a validation of how valuable Larry Foote is to our defense.”

McLendon was more succinct: “Larry Foote saw everything, knew everything, could read everything. That man is a great football player.”

And now following those dominoes back to our micro, no one has felt that loss more than Williams. He's no excuse-maker, but he's also cited examples where he hasn't known what to do just before a snap in large part because he has to read off Polamalu.

Not even Dick LeBeau knows how to read off Polamalu.

“The good part is, I'm getting better at it,” Williams said. “One thing I started doing a couple weeks ago was asking Troy to describe for me what he sees out there, what he's looking for, so I can look for the same things. It's helped a lot.”

In the interim, though, you've had a 23-year-old, wide-eyed, oh-wow-that's-really-Troy-Polamalu rookie out there as the starting inside linebacker.

And that's your 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers right there, macro or micro: What can go wrong will go wrong, a novice will be asked to fix it, and all concerned have to live and learn from it all.

“It really is getting better,” Williams said in concluding our chat. “I hope I didn't give out the wrong idea with that tweet. I believe in myself. I believe in my ability.”

Might explain why @VinnyVidiVici98 tweeted this later in the week: “I've been such a sponge lately. Trying to better myself in every facet of life.”

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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