Good things come to those who wait.
At least that what Larry Foote hoped when the Pittsburgh Steelers selected him in the fourth round of the 2002 draft.
The team had just signed James Farrior that season and already had 2001 defensive rookie of the year Kendrell Bell manning its inside linebacker positions. That didn’t leave much of an opening, even for a player who had been the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year and an All-American the previous season.
“It was tough coming here and sitting,” said Foote. “I had been All-America, the defensive player of the year in the conference. I knew I could play, I just needed a chance.” Foote’s chance came sooner than he or the Steelers would ever have guessed.
Because of injuries to Bell, Foote started three games as a rookie and saw considerable amounts of time in other games, sharing time with Bell as he fought to come back from a sprained ankle. He went back to the bench in 2003, but ended up starting all 16 games again in 2004, as Bell struggled throughout the season with a groin injury.
The Steelers thought so much of Foote that they allowed Bell to leave as a free agent following the 2004 season. He signed with the Kansas City Chiefs and Sunday will mark the first time Foote and Bell have been on a field together since the end of the 2004 season.
Given the fact that the Steelers (1-3) are set on running the ball with Willie Parker and the Chiefs (2-2) will do the same with Larry Johnson, Foote and Bell figure to play key roles in helping to decide which team will come out on top.
The Steelers feel like they got the better of the deal by keeping Foote instead of Bell.
“He’s had the opportunity to go out there and show how he can play,” linebacker Joey Porter said of Foote, who has 26 tackles and is tied with Clark Haggans for the team lead with three sacks. “He’s been able to play, but in this defense, when you have guys like Kendrell Bell in front of you, sometimes you have to stand back and wait your time. He waited his turn and now he’s getting the opportunity to go out and make plays and he’s showing everyone the capability of being the great player that he’s been. He’s just having the chance to go out there and do it.”
The 6-1, 239-pound Foote doesn’t have the imposing physical skills of the 6-1, 250-pound Bell. What he does have, however, are outstanding instincts and the ability to diagnose plays thanks to plenty of film study.
“I didn’t run a great time at the draft combine and I’m not the biggest guy, but I feel like I’m a pretty smart player,” said Foote, who led the Steelers with 123 tackles last season. His teammates appreciate that knowledge on game day.
“He says he might not be the fastest or the biggest, but he’s the quickest,” said Farrior. “He is a smart player, a very instinctive linebacker. Put him in the middle and he diagnoses the play most of the time just from reading the formation.”
It’s a far cry different than his rookie season, when Foote understandably struggled.
“It was rough for him when he was a rookie,” said Farrior. “For any rookie to come into the league and be thrown in there right away, you’ve got to kind of learn on the run. I think he adjusted to well and you can see the difference in his play now.”
His play now has been reminiscent of Bell’s first season, when he set a team record for sacks by an inside linebacker with nine.
Bell is in a new position now with the Chiefs, having been moved to outside linebacker last season. Bell started 14 games in 2005, recording 68 tackles and a sack. This season, he has 14 tackles and a sack in four games.
“He was dinged up last year and in a new system,” said Kansas City coach Herm Edwards. “Now, he’s in a new system again. But he’s done a good job for us.”