By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Lawrence Timmons stayed healthy and finally had the breakthrough season everyone believed he could have since the Pittsburgh Steelers selected him with their No. 1 pick in 2007.
The Steelers rewarded Timmons with a six-year, $50 million contract today, and the fifth-year inside linebacker was thrilled about it.
“I couldn’t be happier just to be locked up here for the next six years and being a big part of this organization,” Timmons said before Tuesday’s practice. “It all happened pretty fast, but Mike Tomlin said that he really wanted to keep me here. I was one of his first drafted players.
“So, I’m just happy to be signed here for another six years. … It’s very pivotal for our defense to be great to have all these great players here for a long time. That way, we can keep this process going and keep it going for a while. I didn’t think about (a new contract) too much, because I did have this year.
Even though Timmons was in the final season of his rookie contract, the Steelers targeted he and safety Troy Polamalu for extensions after outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley re-signed a couple weeks ago. Timmons said that he trusted his head coach when he told the player that he wanted to keep him on the roster for a long time.
That’s understandable, because Timmons — who finished among the NFL’s top tacklers with 135 total stops last season — actually led the league in the early going. However, a hematoma developed on his side, and that appeared to hold him back a bit, even though he wouldn’t use it as an excuse.
“I just think I didn’t get as many plays in the second half as I did during my first eight games, but that’s part of the game,” Timmons said. “I think that if I can get double-digit sacks this year that would really help our defense.
“(That) would open things up for the other great players here. … I missed out on quite a few (sacks) last year, so I just have to finish my plays. If I can do that, then I think I’ll be a pretty good linebacker.”
The Steelers also brought back a familiar face this week, as offensive lineman Trai Essex re-signed for a seventh NFL season with the club.
“This is home for me, so I’m definitely glad to be back,” Essex said Tuesday before his first practice. “But I was just working out as hard as I could to get in shape and waiting for this opportunity. I have a familiarity with the system, and I’ve played a lot of different positions. So, it’s great to be back. But I really don’t know where I’ll play or what I’ll be doing.”
Staying in shape are the operative words for Essex, who is listed at 6-foot-5 and 324 pounds on the Steelers’ new roster. That second figure was much larger a month or so ago, but Essex said he trained hard and dropped “like two newborn babies (in weight).”
“I had to take a look at myself and realize that if I wanted to play this game I’d have to be in shape,” Essex said. “And I wasn’t during the lockout, so I came in here now at much better shape than I was a couple months ago.”
Among Essex’s biggest advocates was Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“When it all comes down to it, Trai’s a good football player, and I’ve got faith in him,” Roethlisberger said. “It doesn’t matter what position he plays, because he’s valuable. He can play all five spots. Trai’s been here six or seven years, and he’s played a lot of games for us. … You can’t have enough guys like Trai on your team, so I’m very glad that we re-signed him this week.
“I’ve kind of been one of the middle men to get him back here. I told him he needed to come in here and be focused and keep his weight down and not make mistakes, and I could hear it in his voice. He told me to trust him, that he was ready to go, and I believe him. I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
Essex ran second-team left tackle today in practice and probably won’t have to be in the starting lineup at left guard in the third preseason game Saturday night, because another seven-year pro — Chris Kemoeatu — said the plan is for him to start after missing two games while rehabbing from an offseason knee injury.
“I’ve been rehabbing and running around out there for going on two weeks now,” Kemoeatu said. “And I feel pretty good, so I’m definitely feeling good enough to play in this preseason game.”
The Steelers entertain the Atlanta Falcons at 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Field.