By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — With his interesting name, size and athleticism, Baraka Atkins should easily stand out on the football field.
To this point, however, Atkins three-year NFL career has been rather nondescript. The Pittsburgh Steelers are hopeful that the 6-foot-4, 271-pound outside linebacker can change that with them this season.
“We like his speed, his size and his athleticism,” Steelers outside linebackers coach Keith Butler said. “He’s an intriguing prospect. Well, not really a prospect, because he’s been in the league a couple years, but we like him. We believe he’s a good fit for us as a pass-rusher in the three-four (scheme).”
Atkins should get quite a bit of playing time when the Steelers visit the Washington Redskins Friday night at 7:30 p.m. He’s listed as the backup to left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who will start and only play 10 snaps or so.
“I’ve already learned a lot from LaMarr,” Atkins said. “He’s been here a few years, and he’s already playing at such a high level. There can’t be too many linebacking corps in the NFL better than this group, so I’m just happy to be part of a great bunch of a guys with a great organization.”
Second-year linebacker Jason Worilds is the other backup on the outside, behind James Harrison on the right side, so Atkins — with several years in the NFL — is among the Steelers’ most-experienced backups at linebacker. That’s why this is a big first game for him. Atkins must make an impression.
“I think I’ve done pretty well so far in camp, but this game with the Eagles is even more important,” Atkins said. “They look at what we do in practice, sure, but how well you do in a game against different competition, in a live game, that’s where you can make an impact. So, that’s what I’m trying to do.
“I can learn everything in the meetings off the field and perform well in practice on it, but the games are when you can make a name for yourself. When you get a chance to make a play, you can’t let is pass by. You need to pressure the quarterback, and you can’t miss tackles. This is a big chance for me.”
Atkins was an all-star selection at Booker High School in Sarasota, Fla. and basically played on the defensive line at the University of Miami, switching between tackle and end throughout his career there, and never received more than honorable-mention status in the ACC post-season honor roll.
Still, the Seattle Seahawks selected him in the fourth round during the 2007 NFL Draft, and Atkins played in 12 games that season. He recorded 11 tackles that year with one pass breakup. Atkins played in nine games in 2008 and tallied 18 tackles with two sacks, but he was released before the 2009 season.
Atkins eventually was signed by the San Francisco 49ers December 9, 2009, after defensive end Kentwan Balmer was placed on injured reserve, but the 49ers waived him a few weeks later. Atkins was signed by the Denver Broncos Jan. 14, 2010. The Steelers signed him to a futures contract Jan. 11, 2011.
Notes: The Steelers carried 9 linebackers (4 OLB, 5 MLB) to open last season.