Timmons feels pressure to transform Steelers back into contender
Lawrence Timmons concedes he feels the weight of lofty expectations as the Steelers prepare to open training camp Friday at St. Vincent in Latrobe.
Timmons, arguably the Steelers' most effective defensive player the past four seasons, was thrust into a leadership role last year. This time, he's being counted upon to steer a wayward defense back in the right direction.
“I do feel like I have to do a lot for this team,” Timmons said. “With me being one of the older guys, I understand that if everybody does their job, everyone is going to make plays.”
Timmons, though, has proven to be the Steelers' most consistent playmaker during consecutive 8-8 seasons. In 2013, he led the team in tackles, tied for the most interceptions and often made the heavy hits that altered momentum as the Steelers stubbornly retreated from the playoff fight.
Safety Troy Polamalu is considered the heart of the defense. But many of Timmons' teammates agree Timmons is the anchor.
Already, Timmons is fired up about two-a-day drills in the sometimes-sweltering heat.
“Energy is everything,” he said. “When I make a big hit or force a turnover, hopefully it can inspire the entire defense.
“We have all the potential in the world to get things back on track. We've brought in some quality players like (safety) Mike Mitchell and (defensive lineman) Cam Thomas who will make us stronger and deeper.”
The defense, which was lacking in depth the past two seasons, shoulders some of the blame for the Steelers failing to advance to the playoffs. For Timmons, it burdens much of the responsibility of getting back into the Super Bowl tournament.
A usually stoic Timmons arrived at the team's South Side practice facility last month feeling confident. And he was more outgoing than usual in his role as mentor and playmaker.
“So much of what we do depends on how Lawrence performs,” veteran cornerback Ike Taylor said. “He never takes a down off, and that's what he's about as a football player.”
Timmons, a No. 1 draft pick in 2007, spent much of the summer workouts tutoring and encouraging a corps of young linebackers, including this year's No. 1 pick, Ryan Shazier, and last year's top pick, Jarvis Jones.
“We were probably hurt a little with (linebacker Jason) Worilds out, but on the other hand, some of the new guys like Arthur Moats got a few more reps that will help him adjust to the schemes,” Timmons said.
“I feel like Shazier getting a lot reps instead of waiting behind Vince (Williams) has helped him a lot running with the starters. He's starting to put together little pieces of the puzzle.”
Timmons also embraced newcomers Mitchell, Thomas and Moats with the intent of helping them to assimilate within a defense looking for redemption.
The Steelers were the top-ranked defense in the NFL in 2012. They slipped to 13th last season, including 21st against the run after surrendering the second-fewest rushing yards in 2012.
“We've got to put more into our practice and pay closer attention to detail,” Timmons said. “We've got to iron out some of the problems we had in executing our assignments.
“I believe getting to the ball is a matter of being in shape mentally and physically. It's the first brick of building a solid foundation for the defense.”
No one, it seems, is in better shape mentally or physically than Timmons. Like Taylor, he has a grueling offseason training regimen that has enabled him to avoid the nagging injuries that contributed to a lack of production by former Steelers linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
Timmons is considered the consummate professional. Staying fit and healthy, he insists, is simply part of the job.
“I have to take care of my body so I won't let down my teammates,” said Timmons, who rarely missed a snap last season. “I need to be the very best player I can be because I know where we want to go.
“I have to get my piece of the puzzle in the right place for us to be successful. In the end, that's how you win championships.”
In an effort to alleviate the adverse effects of mounting pressure, Timmons began playing golf. But he has discovered it's more than a hobby. He admits it has become a passionate vice that has transformed into a therapeutic obsession to enhance an already tempered demeanor.
“It's like therapy, and it calms my nerves,” Timmons said with an easy smile. “It gets you in the kind of mentality that's required to work. You shouldn't be on the field hesitating and being on edge all the time.
“It's why you do certain things in practice, so you can get used to playing under pressure. Sometimes when I get to Heinz Field, the game feels as it does during practice because the game slows down for me.”
Timmons' calm, measured approach to football is seemingly a conditioned response.
At times, he appears adrift in his surroundings, a loud locker room on the South Side or a vociferous crowd at a jam-packed stadium. Then there are times when he's fully engaged with his teammates, who have grown accustomed to his business-like approach.
“It's a business, but you've got to have fun,” Timmons said. “It's good have teammates like (defensive end) Cam (Heyward) and (offensive tackle) Marcus Gilbert who enjoy coming to work as much as I do. It's what makes this game a beautiful thing.
“I want to be a model citizen for this team because we're very young now. I can't get carried away with having a good time because everyone, especially the young guys, have to know there's a time and place for everything. It's why I do the things I do and why I carry myself a certain way.”
Yet he takes on 4-foot par putts with the same determined focus as third-and-short situations. And he confidently rolls in those testy 4-footers at the same rate in which he chases down ball carriers.
In the past four seasons, Timmons' 460 tackles are the best among all defenders. He had a team-high 135 combined tackles in 2010 before slumping to 93 in 2011 — a season in which his role and expectations changed.
“(Timmons) takes the game seriously, but he doesn't sweat the pressure of being the guy everyone counts on,” Heyward said. “He doesn't have to say much because he's constantly leading by example.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.