Lawrence Timmons arrived at the Steelers' training facility earlier this month without the burden of logging a heavy chip on his shoulder.
The seventh-year inside linebacker appeared remarkably calm during mini-camp, in part, because of a solid 2012 season that helped lift the shroud of doubt cast by his critics. He even allowed himself to laugh out loud — a seismic change in attitude for the usually stoic Timmons.
No one, though, should expect Timmons to smile much when training camp begins July 26 at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. Besides, the pressures may be considerably greater than last year when he felt compelled to prove himself after an uneven 2011 season.
Timmons had the numbers: 106 solo tackles, three interceptions and six sacks. Far more impressive was his ability to make big plays when it mattered most.
He returned an interception deep into Kansas City's territory to set up Shaun Suisham's game-winning field goal in overtime. He scored after picking off a Brandon Weeden pass in Cleveland.
“I look at myself as a game-changer, and I try to make that a facet of my game,” Timmons said. “I look forward to those opportunities, because I want to live up to those expectations.”
When no one else on defense was making plays, Timmons got it done. Dick LeBeau, the team's venerable defensive coordinator, gave Timmons the freedom to take risks against both the run and pass.
“(LeBeau) puts me in positions to maximize my opportunities to make plays,” said Timmons, who often draws some of the league's best tight ends in pass coverage. “I have to assert myself in a certain way. I don't feel as if I have to force anything. I just have to play my game.”
Timmons played well enough to be considered a Pro Bowl starter, but he was chosen as an alternate. Perhaps surprisingly, he wasn't MVP for a team that relied heavily on the defense to keep it close in most games (Heath Miller won the award).
“I felt like I had a helluva year, but other guys had good years and deserved it,” Timmons said.
“We can get back to the playoffs if we continue to play well defensively, and that's what really matters.
“Considering we lost to teams we should have beaten, it's not surprising we didn't make the playoffs,” Timmons added.
“We have to finish off opponents to get to where we want to be.”
While veteran linebacker Larry Foote returns to anchor the middle of the NFL's reigning No. 1 defense, lofty expectations remain for Timmons. The Steelers will need the Florida State product to step up his game even more with the departure of former All-Pro linebacker James Harrison, who bolted for AFC North rival Cincinnati.
“It's a testament to Lawrence's character. It's the type of person he is that he's a selfless guy,” outside linebacker Jason Worilds said. “He always put the team first. He's always the one with his helmet on first and the last to leave the practice field.
“He leads by example, and it resonates with a lot of people. He's always running toward the ball. He's always trying to strip the ball. It speaks volume when you see that on film.”
Also, it's clear that Timmons is expected to fill a leadership void created by the absence of nose tackle Casey Hampton and Harrison.
“It'll change things a lot, because James was a big part of our defense,” Timmons said. “He brought the part of the game that reminded everyone of the Steel Curtain.
“There's no question they are going to be missed. But we'll have to keep that intensity.
“We've got all the parts of the defense to make it a great one,” Timmons added. “I know we're going to be just fine.”
However, the linebacker corps was largely unsettled before Harrison explored free agency. Worilds and No. 1 draft pick Jarvis Jones are expected to contend for a starting outside linebacker job opposite the oft-injured LaMarr Woodley.
“We have some unknown guys who need to step up and play big roles for us next year,” Foote said. “We're counting on them.”
On paper, the Steelers appear to have depth at linebacker — including Chris Carter and Stevenson Sylvester. Yet injuries have slowed their progress the past two seasons.
“They all have the potential to be great players,” Timmons said.
“They play hard, and I know they are going to make plays for us because they are playmakers
“This is a team that's only as good as our defense. So there's lot being put on our shoulders to make it easier for our offense. We want to be the No. 1 defense and cause more turnovers.”
If the Steelers are to make a run at the playoffs, Timmons acknowledged he'll have to start the season with a greater sense of urgency.
“I came out kind of slow last year,” he said. “I want to come out hot this year, but it's always about how we finish.”