By Tim Benz
Injuries are hitting the Steelers hard as they head into a Sunday night showdown against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Brett Keisel and Lamarr Woodley have injured hamstrings. Flozell Adams are Trai Essex are recovering from ankle injuries. And Aaron Smith may be out for the year with a torn triceps injury.
How the Steelers fill the voids at most of those positions are pretty clear. Jonathan Scott will step up for Adams at right tackle. Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky have been plugging the gap for Essex at right guard. Keisel and Smith will be replaced at the defensive end positions by Nick Eason and Ziggy Hood respectively.
But the biggest debate seems to be coming at linebacker. How will the Steelers manipulate their roster to handle the potential loss of Woodley. When the Pro Bowler went out during the win in Miami last Sunday, rookie Jason Worilds got a little playing time.
Also, the Steelers occasionally put Larry Foote at his old inside linebacker spot which is now occupied full time by Lawrence Timmons. Then Timmons jumped outside into Woodley’s position.
The Steelers other inside linebacker is defensive captain James Farrior. And he endorses the prospect of putting Foote back in the starting line up while moving Timmons outside.
“I think that’s the best move for our team to put Lawrence outside if Woodley can’t go,” declared Farrior. “Cause I don’t think it’s much of a drop off. I played next to Foote for years. And Timmons knows everything about playing the outside backer position. And he’s a spectacular athlete.”
Farrior is right.
Especially since Woodley did practice Thursday, the Steelers could get by with that alignment for one week or in small doses this week if Woodley dresses but sits out a lot of snaps. But even if Woodley should be limited or should aggravate the injury for weeks to come, Timmons’ “spectacular” athleticism could be compromised rushing off the edge against hulking right tackles.
Timmons’ burst toward the line of scrimmage is much more powerful rushing straight ahead on a quarterback blitz or to blow up a running play in the backfield. Plus he would be more effective dropping into coverage from the inside than the outside-left.
Furthermore, Timmons has tried outside linebacker before here, and it didn’t work. He was an outside linebacker in college. He was believed to be ticketed for an inside spot on draft day. The Steelers kept him outside. Then moved him to inside after all. And now some think he is having a Pro Bowl year at that inside spot.
His versatility is rare in this system. That is, of course, if you consider his limited attempts to play outside “versatility.” Foote does. And he’s grateful.
“I told Lawrence during the game (in Miami) that his versatility is the only reason I’m getting to play,” laughed Foote. “Since I’ve been back (from Detroit in ‘09), and before I left, I don’t really remember anybody in this scheme who played both inside and outside. That’s in my time here anyway.”
Foote makes a good point. Chad Brown went from the inside to the outside in the late 90’s. The Steelers tried using Kendrell Bell as a rush end in passing situations after playing inside during base sets. But that experiment was a horrible failure. For his part, Timmons is embracing the challenge should it be presented. And he seems unfazed by the issues that may be at hand.
“I’ve got different reads now. I gotta read the tackle and tight ends instead of the guards. But the practice has helped. And I’ll just go out there and do my job.”
Foote heaped praise at the feet of Timmons for his improvement since the end of the ‘08 season. That’s when Foote vacated the starting spot and left for a year in Detroit. “It’s been night and day with him since when I left and since I came back. He took that position and owned it. He’s proven he deserves to play on all three downs.”
That’s part of the reason I’m hesitant to put as much faith in this potential position switch facing Timmons as some of the players are. Timmons has gotten so good, I don’t want to see Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau weaken a second position in attempt to patch the first one.
Worilds didn’t show much against the Dolphins. And he might be a real project to develop. But if Woodley or James Harrison should be hurt on the outside for an extended period, I’d hope to see Worilds improve to the point that Timmons wouldn’t have to move.
As a short term fix though, the Steelers would be doing the right thing. Starting Foote and flopping out Timmons gives Pittsburgh a chance to play its four best linebackers if Woodley is scratched.
But over an extended stretch (with all do respect to Foote) I’d prefer to see the club develop Worilds outside and continue to develop Timmons into a stud inside so #94 would be force to play in a spot where he won‘t impact the game as much.
And my biggest preference…would be to see Woodley healthy.