Forget about a competition with Larry Foote. The best battle for Lawrence Timmons was always whether he could close faster on the ball than Troy Polamalu, the original Tasmanian Devil. It was a competition his teammates would like to see. And none of them are ready to discount the 245-pound inside linebacker.
"They're neck and neck," said inside linebacker James Farrior.
"I don't know," cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "It would be close."
In just two years with the Steelers, Timmons' explosiveness and ability to close on a ballcarrier are already the stuff of legend. Now, entering his third season as the first player drafted by Mike Tomlin, he has a chance to showcase his awesome physical ability on a full-time basis, not just as a blitzing, pass-covering linebacker who spent his first two seasons playing mostly in the team's substitution packages (nickel and dime defenses).
And his teammates on the NFL's No. 1 defense seem just as eager to have Timmons be an every-down player, as he prepares to become a starter in the league.
"He's probably one of the best athletes we have on the team," said Farrior, Foote's long-time partner at inside linebacker. "He's very explosive."
"He just has rockets in his butt," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "He can run like I haven't seen a lot of guys run."
The Steelers granted Foote's wish in the offseason and released him after five years as one of their starting inside linebackers, clearing the way for Timmons to step in to what is arguably the best group of linebackers in the NFL. Timmons is not a run-stuffing linebacker such as Foote; rather, he has the speed and athleticism to be a defensive playmaker -- a player who can blitz from any direction but also drop into coverage against running backs, tight ends and, on occasion, wide receivers.
And, because he played in all the substitution packages, Timmons will become an every-down player with the Steelers, something Foote did not do.
"It's not a bad trade, either way," Townsend said. "It's a plus for our team. Foote was a great player. Timmons is going to be a great player."
Foote was a five-year starter after being drafted in the fourth round in 2002, but he asked to be released in the offseason because he knew he was going to phased out for Timmons -- something he had known almost from the time Timmons was the 15th overall selection in 2007. Also, Foote was due to make nearly $3 million this season and was unwilling to take a pay cut.
One week after Foote was released, he signed a one-year contract with his hometown Detroit Lions, a move that took him from the top of the NFL to the absolute bottom.
"He was a very smart player," Farrior said. "He helped me out a lot. I'm looking forward to working with Timmons, but I feel like I'm going to have to help him out a lot more than he's helping me."
"A huge run stuffer," Keisel said. "Foote was great at getting his nose right up in there and stuffing the run. And we lose great leader in the locker room. But that's the way football is. Every year you lose a friend."
And sometimes you gain a great player.
Timmons' athleticism is nearly unmatched on the team. He has lined up at just about every position on the field, except for nose tackles, and is often asked to cover running backs and wide receivers.
And, with the possible exception of Polamalu, there isn't another player on the team who closes on the ball faster and with more explosion than Timmons, even after adding nearly 10 pounds in the offseason.
"I don't know if Troy can come through faster than Timmons," said outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who was drafted in the second round behind Timmons in 2007. "He comes through with so much power and explosion. He's not scared to take on an offensive lineman. You don't find guys like that a lot. Usually those guys are scared to take on those offensive linemen."
Said Townsend: "Once [Timmons] pushes that foot down to go, he's going. He gets there in a hurry."
Even if it took him three years to get his chance to start.
He is an easy upgrade over Foote. Foote was solid but would not do or be anything special. Timmons will be a a hell of a player in the middle of that stud "D"!