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November 15, 2012

Timmons breaks the mold

PITTSBURGH — James Harrison rarely holds back when it comes to controversial comments.

Larry Foote’s a congenial chatterbox on and off the field.

And among great Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers of the recent past, Joey Porter was known for his trash talking and James Farrior for his vocal leadership.

Something about the position, maybe.

Then, of course, there’s Lawrence Timmons, arguably the best linebacker for the best statistical defense in the NFL. Timmons hardly fits the mold of a loud and rambunctious Steelers linebacker – past or present.

But he’s just as productive, if not more. And he will be in focus when his Steelers (6-3) face the Baltimore Ravens (7-2) in an AFC North showdown Sunday night.

“Man, if Lawrence says more than two words to you, I guess you’re his friend,” Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton quipped. “I might not be his friend. I don’t think he’s said more than two words to me since he’s been here.”

Quiet and mild-mannered in the Steelers’ locker room, Timmons maintains a steely focus when he’s in the heat of battle. And the Steelers will need that this week.

The freakishly athletic former first-round pick is in his fourth season as a starter, but he’s still the junior member of a veteran Pittsburgh corps. With Harrison and Foote in their 30s and LaMarr Woodley shaking off nagging hamstring injuries, Timmons has been the Steelers’ most consistent playmaker at linebacker.

His interception of Matt Cassel and 23-yard return inside the Kansas City 10-yard line set up the winning field goal early in overtime of a 16-13 victory over the Chiefs on Monday.

“He told me that he was one of the top offensive prospects coming out of high school, and I used to deny that,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “But after that run he made Monday night, I think he’s got a point.”

The 75-year-old LeBeau chuckled. But he wasn’t joking a few moments later when he said, “I think Lawrence has been playing at a Pro Bowl level for several years now.”  

Timmons has yet to be selected for a Pro Bowl. LeBeau said that’s because he’s been overshadowed on his own team by the likes of Harrison, Woodley and Farrior, who have seven berths between them.

In the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme, it’s the outside linebackers who rack up the sacks. Timmons has played there at times for Pittsburgh, but he’s settling into his inside spot next to Foote. That hasn’t taken away, though, from the versatility that might be his greatest asset.

“I feel like I can fill in anywhere to help the defense,” Timmons said. “I love getting put in the game plans and I like being in spaces where I can make plays. That means a lot to me.

“(LeBeau) has set up things for me to roam around, play in space – which I love doing – and also blitz the passer. It’s fun.”

A chiseled 6-1, 234 pounds, Timmons is big enough to be an effective tackler but fast enough to be a strong safety. That’s exactly how LeBeau sees it. When Foote calls Timmons “the Troy Polamalu of the front seven,” it’s because of his polite and soft-spoken ways. LeBeau actually uses Timmons as the Polamalu of the front seven.

Particularly with Polamalu out with a calf injury for much of this season, Timmons has increasingly been playing in centerfield on passing downs.

“Each year, he’s just been getting better and better – and lately he’s started to be a big-time playmaker for us,” Foote said. “The sky’s the limit for Lawrence.”

That’s a familiar offseason refrain in Pittsburgh about Timmons, who has shown some flashes of brilliance but hasn’t been the consistently dominant player that the 2007 No. 15 overall draft pick should be. In the past 12 years, franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is the only player the Steelers have drafted with an earlier pick than No. 15.

It seems as if every summer, Timmons is the popular choice as Pittsburgh’s “breakout” player. That talk was amplified when he signed a six-year, $50 million contract extension in August 2011.

But now, he seems to be living up to it.

“I’m always trying to be real hard on myself,” Timmons said. “I hate to make mistakes so I’m always concentrating and I try to be real focused. I’m always trying to be the best.”

On the field, there’s no question. Competing in a locker room game of shuffleboard or table tennis, Timmons’ intensely competitive nature shines through, as well.

But when he’s not competing, the “good ol’ quiet Southern boy,” as Foote puts it, comes out. Early in his career, a common sight in the bustling and crowded pre-practice locker room was Timmons flat on his back, a jersey over his face for an early-afternoon cat nap.

“I guess that’s him resting up,” said Hampton, “because on the field, he’s anything but quiet. He don’t say a lot, but he speaks with his pads and his play – playing hard, playing physical.

“He can keep on being quiet, saving all his energy, as long as he keeps making plays for us.”

Notes: LB Chris Carter was placed on injured reserve because of an abdominal injury. The team promoted LB Marshall McFadden from the practice squad to take his roster spot and added TE Jamie McCoy to the practice squad. ... RB Rashard Mendenhall practiced fully for the second consecutive day and aims to play Sunday for the first time in more than a month because an Achilles injury.

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