Kevin Gorman: Bone spurs gone, Steelers’ Anthony Chickillo ready to roll
Anthony Chickillo pulls the phone out of his pocket and scrolls through photos until he finds the one that shows the four bone spurs removed from his right ankle in the offseason.
They are lined up against a tape measure by orthopedic surgeon Dr. Robert Anderson, an ankle specialist in Green Bay, Wis., known for operating on NFL players.
“He said it was the most he’s ever seen in someone’s ankle,” said Chickillo, pointing to the bone spur on the far left. “That one was as big as a shrimp. It was affecting my game, but it’s all good now.”
Yes, you read that right: Chickillo was playing football last season with four bone growths in his right foot, the biggest of them the size of a shrimp.
No wonder the Pittsburgh Steelers fifth-year outside linebacker proclaims that this is the best he’s felt in a decade, since he was a high school All-American and five-star recruit out of Tampa.
It’s certainly the best he’s looked with the Steelers, as he appears leaner and faster than ever. Chickillo weighed as much as 285 as a defensive tackle at Miami but is down to 245 pounds for the first time since high school.
That’s what has impressed Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who downplayed the significance of the offseason procedure but credited Chickillo for reporting “highly conditioned” to training camp at Saint Vincent.
“I don’t want to make too much out of it,” Tomlin said of the removal of bone spurs. “He’s worked extremely hard. He’s in great shape. I attribute any rise in production or activity to that.”
The Steelers are banking on Chickillo to be their top backup at outside linebacker this season, signing him to a two-year, $8 million contract to prevent him from testing free agency. He is the only player with more than one game of NFL experience behind Pro Bowl pick T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree.
Chickillo had 18 tackles, 1½ sacks, three quarterback hits and two fumble recoveries last season, so a rise in production is possible. He looks down at his feet to show why, turning his left foot outwardly at a 45-degree angle while keeping his right foot pointed straight ahead to display the differences.
“Since 2009, my (right) ankle was locked in that position all the time and this (left) foot was normal, like that,” Chickillo said. “My other ankle couldn’t do that, and now it can.”
The bone spurs started when Chickillo was in high school and got worse every time he rolled his ankle. He had some but not all of the spurs removed while at Miami, blaming the delay on being taught to play through pain and without complaint.
“My ankle was locked in a certain position. In football, that’s not good,” Chickillo said, noting that his quickness and ability to bend his ankle already have improved. “I feel a lot more agile than I have in the past. It’s a big difference. I feel good. I’m excited for the season.”
Chickillo especially was excited for the start of training camp. He spent the first few practices lining up on the left side of the starting defense in place of Watt, who opened camp on the PUP list with a hamstring injury.
Tomlin called it a “big time” opportunity for Chickillo, who has nine career starts in 54 games but played 28 percent of defensive snaps and 71 percent of special-teams snaps last season.
“Any time you’re going with the first team, you’re going against the best we’ve got so you’ve got to take advantage of those opportunities,” said Chickillo, who left Friday’s practice with a hamstring and did not practice Saturday. “That’s not only for myself, but I tell that to all the young guys: If you roll with the first team, those reps are precious so take advantage of them.”
Chickillo wants to take advantage of his new-found agility by becoming a disruptive pass rusher for the Steelers. Now that he can finally turn his right ankle, he’s ready to roll.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .