There was one drawback to the basic defensive plan the Steelers used in their second preseason game in Toronto, and it wasn't the ease with which the Buffalo Bills went up and down the field. It was that Lawrence Timmons nearly didn't get on the field until the second quarter.
That is not likely to happen when the Steelers play in Minnesota Saturday night, a game in which the starters typically see their most playing time in the preseason and the coaches sometimes trot out an extra wrinkle or two.
And it most certainly won't happen when the regular season begins Sept. 7, even if Timmons, the Steelers' No. 1 draft pick last year, doesn't beat out veteran Larry Foote for one of the inside linebacker positions in the 3-4 defense.
Timmons appeared for only one play during the first three series against the Bills because the Steelers used their base 3-4 defense for all but five plays and rarely blitzed the quarterback. But, once he got on the field in the second quarter, playing the "Mack" inside position with the second-team defense, Timmons stood out like the CN Tower that rose above the playing field at the Rogers Centre.
He has been doing that since training camp began, and there is no reason to suggest that will change as the Steelers shift their preseason location from Saint Vincent College in Latrobe to their South Side training facility.
"His pedigree shows every time he's on the field," coach Mike Tomlin said.
Tomlin has tried to downplay Timmons' emergence as a player who could impact the defense more than LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers' No. 2 draft choice last year, who will start at left outside linebacker. He has done so because he likes the way Timmons quietly has approached his second season and doesn't want to say anything that would allow the 6-foot-3, 242-pound linebacker to think he should be immediately bronzed into the Hall of Fame. Or something like that.
But, as the preseason morphs toward the regular season, the only thing that will grow increasingly more difficult for Tomlin will be trying to keep Timmons off the playing field. He has been defending passes in the end zone, squashing plays in the flat and closing on running backs as though they've taken his meal money. And he has been exploding into quarterbacks like no Steelers linebacker since Kendrell Bell was a rookie.
One difference: Timmons appears to know what he is doing.
"It's different when you're running and don't know what you're doing," Timmons said. "You'll just be running like a chicken with his head off. But when you know what you have to do, you're comfortable and you can play faster because you know where you're supposed to be."
That is the biggest difference between Timmons and Bell, who was a No. 2 draft choice in 2001. Bell didn't understand the defense as a rookie, but defensive coordinator Tim Lewis was so enamored with his explosive physical ability that he used Bell merely to rush the quarterback and blow up plays in the backfield. But, after being named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year, Bell never was the same productive player. He became one-dimensional because he never learned the defense and was eventually let go in free agency.
Testament to Timmons' development is that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau uses him as an extra linebacker in the nickel defense, a role that requires a lot of pass-coverage responsibilities. In those situations, Timmons will replace Foote, a seven-year veteran. When safety Troy Polamalu missed the first three weeks of training camp, it was Timmons who played his role in the quarter defense -- an alignment that looked like the nickel defense because four linebackers were on the field. In actuality, Timmons was playing the spot usually manned by a four-time Pro Bowl safety.
"I just go do what the coaches say when they put me in," Timmons said. "I just try to do my job. When you have a year under your belt, you're feeling a lot better. I just went out and made plays that came to me."
Well, not all of them. Sometimes, Timmons went to them.
That happened in the second quarter when he sacked Bills quarterback J.P. Losman. And it especially happened in the third when he delivered a thundering hit on quarterback Matt Baker as he released the ball.
"You got to love that," Timmons said of getting a shot at the quarterback. "I'm just glad it came."
It probably will, so long as he gets the opportunities.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
First published on August 19, 2008 at 12:00 am