Timmons plans to remain man in middle this season
By Ralph N. Paulk
Published: Sunday, September 9, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated: Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Lawrence Timmons, a usually reluctant voice of the Steelers' defense, figured he'd draw the critics' wrath last season if he failed to measure up to lofty expectations of the team's $50 million investment in him.
For the most part, Timmons was steady. He was reliable and durable.
Yet if numbers matter, he was hardly spectacular on a defense that amassed the best statistics in the NFL for the third time under coach Mike Tomlin. Timmons' 93 tackles were considerably less than his team-high 135 in 2010 — a reflection of the defense's strategic shift with outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley rendered largely ineffective by injuries, particularly during the second half of the 2011 season.
Safeties Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu were challenged to plug the dam. They racked up a combined 191 tackles, an alarming number for a defense that measures its heart rate on the pulse of its linebackers.
The numbers, though, are hardly reflective of Timmons' most challenging season. The former No. 1 draft pick was asked to abandon his comfort zone as he flipped from inside to outside linebacker.
“Our defense is as strong as our linebacker corps,” said Timmons, an AFC Pro Bowl alternate last season. “We have to do the necessary things to make this defense work.”
The Steelers' sometimes-impregnable 3-4 defense seemingly works best with Timmons as an anchor. He'll be tested Sunday in the regular-season opener when the Steelers face Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High — a rematch of the AFC wild-card game in which the Broncos prevailed, 29-23.
Timmons, beginning his sixth season, is easily the most versatile linebacker on a roster that includes free agents Adrian Robinson and Brandon Johnson; untested second-year, fifth-round pick Chris Carter, unpredictable Stevenson Sylvester and oft-injured Jason Worilds.
It's a unit, too, without longtime, soft-spoken yet vocal leader James Farrior. Larry Foote, a more demonstrative figure, lines up inside with Timmons.
Woodley, inactive for six games last season, appears to have recovered completely from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for six games. Still, there are questions and doubt surrounding Harrison, who had minor knee surgery during training camp.
“I hope James is ready,” Foote said. “We're not going to lose sleep over anybody. Going into the season, you don't point to guys who will be hurt.
“Obviously, the better we stay away from season-ending injuries, the better we'll be. But opportunities are there for everybody. I got my first NFL start (in 2002) when Kendrell Bell wasn't ready to go.”
Robinson gets his chance because rookie Sean Spence suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason finale last Saturday. And Carter had a chance to impress during training camp, partly because of the absence of Harrison and Worilds.
“My situation is unique because I play behind two of the better outside linebackers in the league,” Worilds said. “No matter how good you are, you'll never be good enough. I have to wait my turn and let some things soak in.”
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is confident he has enough depth at linebacker. But it's unclear whether he has anyone as unselfish as Timmons, who sacrificed his numbers in helping the Steelers reach the playoffs each of the past four seasons.
Timmons' niche is inside. Yet he made the switch without complaint after Harrison went down with an eye injury in Houston in October.
“I think what may have hurt Lawrence was having him switch around,” said Foote, who replaced Timmons in the middle of the defense. “In the 3-4, the inside (linebacker) and outside are totally different positions. It's a testament to how talented he is that he played four games out of position, and we still finished first in defense.”
It isn't an exaggeration, Woodley intimated, to conclude that the Steelers' 2012 season depends greatly on how well their linebacker corps hold up.
“Everyone is curious about what the young guys can do,” Woodley said. “I can't remember too much about last season, really. But I remember how much Lawrence put into his job, and that was important for us as a team.”
The 6-foot-1, 234-pound Timmons didn't search for excuses to explain his drop in production in 2011. Instead, he insists that only this season matters — that the ups and downs last year were an aberration, not the norm.
“You get more tackles inside, and the outside is totally different,” Timmons said. “It comes with the territory. It's about self-preservation.
“We are switching positions so guys can be more flexible. From what I know, we're prepared for anything.
“I'm just going to be inside this year. They are not going to have me on the outside like they did last year. It's a positive. I know where I'm going to be.”
Yet, Timmons knows there's a possibility he'll again be asked to step out of his comfort zone. He would rather not bounce from one position to another. If he's pressed into service at outside linebacker, it likely would indicate the coaching staff's lack of confidence in its young reserves.
“I don't know what the coaches will do,” said Timmons, the only linebacker to start all 17 games in 2011. “But whatever position they put me, I'll be ready to help the team. We've definitely got a lot more guys, and we've got enough guys to get the job done.”
Despite the Steelers' lofty defensive ranking, they insist there's room for improvement. And the play of their linebackers — including young backups Carter, Worilds and Sylvester — will factor significantly into how well the Steelers progress.
“If we can pull those guys up, we'll be hard to beat,” Timmons said. “If we can develop them, we can probably get a rotation going so the veterans can save their legs toward the end of the season.”
Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7923.
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