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Kovacevic: Timmons still hasn't topped out

| Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011

Watch Lawrence Timmons slide left and right as signals are called, then slip back as if he might drop into coverage, then erupt forward with a flying tackle of Rashard Mendenhall, and this 6-foot-1, 234-pound heat-seeking missile makes it easy to forget: This is an inside linebacker.

And that had me thinking, from my perch atop one of the rolling green hills of St. Vincent College on Tuesday, that No. 94 simply must be the Steelers' breakout player for the coming season, the one who bursts into prominence.

Just one problem with that: Timmons already broke out in 2010, even if few seemed to notice.

"I don't know about the rest of the NFL, but Lawrence has been on our radar," linebackers coach Keith Butler told me before practice. "And we not only think he was exceptional last year; we think he's going to be even better, one of the best in the league."

Well, maybe there's room for another breakout, then, to a higher level.

"Sure there is," outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "Lawrence is a special talent. You're going to see something big."

Timmons, the Steelers' first-round pick in 2007, came into his own last season with 135 tackles — seventh-most among NFL linebackers and 26 more than fellow inside linebacker James Farrior — plus three sacks and two fumble recoveries.

But what separates Timmons from the pack is pass coverage, which he performs as artfully as anyone at his position. He had two interceptions and, here's the number that leaps off the page, nine passes defensed. That ranked fifth among NFL linebackers and was just two fewer than defensive back teammates Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and William Gay, and one fewer than the perpetually picked-on Bryant McFadden.

This is an inside linebacker.

"Lawrence can cover like a safety, and he'll hit you once he gets there," Butler said. "He's a different animal."

It's tempting to want to return Timmons to outside linebacker, where he dominated in college. There would be more sacks, more tackles for losses, even more of a fright factor to an already fearsome defense. But it whips me back to my senses to realize how his dropping into coverage out of the middle can mess with the mind of a quarterback. Imagine poor Joe Flacco of Baltimore never anticipating that his tight end could be blanketed by the guy eyeballing him from directly across the line of scrimmage.

It's this type of wild card that makes the Dick LeBeau defense so dynamic and makes Timmons such "a tremendous asset," as Butler called him.

Still, there has been no Pro Bowl for Timmons, and there hasn't even been much in the way of press coverage, either. He's undoubtedly the Steelers' most underappreciated player.

That has plenty to do with the roster having maybe a dozen players with greater name recognition. But it also might be indicative that Timmons can do better, and I'd heartily agree. He started far better than he finished last season, partly because of minor but nagging injuries, partly because ... well, only he can say. In the Steelers' Lombardi-or-bust world, first-half fanfare doesn't cut it.

"I am going to take it to another level this year," he said. "I know what my abilities are."

As if to back that up, Timmons boldly forecast he will have 10 sacks this year. That's seven more than last season and, truth be told, next to impossible for an inside linebacker delving into pass coverage. I mentioned that to Timmons, but he cited a film review of 2010 that showed he narrowly missed on 10 sacks, with at least one hand on the quarterback each time.

"In the pros, it's a game of inches," Timmons said. "I think I'm the type of athlete where I can be a double-digit sack guy, without changing anything else I do. I just need to be better once I get to the QB."

Oh, and this, too: Timmons wants to reach the level of the San Francisco 49ers' brilliant Patrick Willis, widely acclaimed as the game's premier middle linebacker.

"He's the man," Timmons said. "He's No. 1 in my eyes right now."

Right now?

"I'm working to get toward that."

Someone's bound to pay attention.

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