Kevin Gorman: Mark Barron picked perfect number, position to play for Steelers
When Mark Barron signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was issued a number of notoriety. No. 26 was last worn by Le’Veon Bell, the All-Pro running back who sat out last season, and worn best by Hall of Famer Rod Woodson.
“I do know Rod, and I do know about Le’Veon,” Barron said, “but I don’t know that much about the history of the number, besides those two.”
Where the Steelers never made a Super Bowl with Bell, they did with their previous players to wear No. 26. It also was donned by several Steelers who played in Super Bowls, from wide receiver Preston Pearson to cornerbacks Woodson and Deshea Townsend. Running back Rocky Bleier even was assigned the number as a rookie before switching to No. 20.
So Barron shares something in common with his predecessors wearing No. 26 for the Steelers in that he’s a skill player who has appeared in a Super Bowl. That came last season when the Los Angeles Rams lost to the New England Patriots. The Steelers play the Patriots in the regular-season opener, and Barron intercepted Tom Brady in a preseason game his rookie season.
In that sense, Barron appears to be a perfect fit.
But Barron wearing No. 26 while playing for the Steelers will take getting used to, especially with him lining up at inside linebacker. Selected No. 7 overall in 2012 by Tampa Bay as a strong safety, Barron made the switch to inside linebacker after being traded to the Rams in ‘14.
The 6-foot-2, 230 pounder is a hybrid who has the requisite size to play linebacker and the speed to stay with skill players in the open field. Barron showcased that speed in the second preseason game Saturday night, when he ran step-for-step with Kansas City running back Damien Williams on an incomplete pass. It was impressive, even if such plays don’t show up on the stat sheet.
“I feel like a football player, making plays wherever I’m lined up at, whether that’s linebacker or wherever I was lined up at in the past,” Barron said. “Right now, I’m playing linebacker, so I feel like I’m a linebacker. I’ve always been a physical player from the jump — always. I’ve been a physical guy, so when they threw me in, I just went in and got it done. Obviously, there’s some adjustments. It’s a different position. There’s some adjustments you have to make. But my mentality has always been hard-nosed, aggressive and physical, so it kind of meshed.”
Barron is meshing well with fellow inside linebackers Devin Bush and Vince Williams, showing promise to plug the soft spot in the belly of the Steelers’ defense left by Ryan Shazier’s spinal-cord injury in 2017. Barron already looks like an upgrade over predecessor Jon Bostic, a run stopper who had trouble keeping up with tight ends over the middle.
“He’s smaller, and he has a DB background, so that’s going to help him,” Williams said of Barron. “He plays different. Bostic was kind of a run-and-chase player. Mark is more of a rangy, longer athlete who plays better in space. You can’t really compare them. They’re polar opposites.”
Where Bostic was vocal, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin described Barron as “kind of a mute.”
“He doesn’t have a lot to say,” Tomlin said. “He’s truly professional in terms of how he goes about his work, but he’s not an overly vocal guy and if the young guys are learning from him, they’re learning by watching.”
Williams wouldn’t go that far, saying Barron was more quiet and observational when he first joined the Steelers. Now, Barron is starting to talk more, both in meetings and on the field, by sharing advice to rookie draft picks Bush and Ulysees Gilbert the way Ronde Barber did for Barron with the Bucs.
“He just says what needs to be said,” Williams said. “He’s not somebody that’s going to spark an unnecessary conversation out of nowhere, but if he feels like he can help somebody or like somebody needs clarification, he’ll speak up.”
Barron’s words carry a Super Bowl swagger, as he had eight tackles and one pass defensed for the Rams in their 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. The only other Steelers to play in a Super Bowl are Ben Roethlisberger and Ramon Foster (Maurkice Pouncey was injured).
“You only get one shot at it and he was like, ‘Yeah, that’s over now.’ You’ve got to start over and try again,” Williams said. “Guys that played in a Super Bowl are used to playing on a top team. They’re used to people making plays around them, so they know how to fit in to that type of environment. Nothing surprises Mark because he’s played on good teams before.”
Barron won two national championships at Alabama but also played on bad teams with both the Buccaneers and Rams — it wasn’t until his sixth season that he reached the NFL playoffs — so he was drawn to signing with the Steelers because he believes they can be a Super Bowl contender.
“I just want that winning environment. That’s what it’s all about for me, especially at this point. I want to win,” Barron said. “I’ve been on teams where we didn’t get it done, and I’m not trying to go back to that. I’ve never been about losing. It just so happens that I was a part of it. But I want to be a part of a winning culture, and I think we have that here. “I’m most definitely motivated. I don’t like to lose. Being the football player I am, I’m sure I’ll be able to help.”
The Steelers are counting on it, no matter what number Barron wears or which position he plays.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .