When it comes to how the Steelers injuries are judged, we have a warped perspective of their impact.
First of all, we compare every one to what seems to be the weekly drama surrounding Ben Roethlisberger’s injury du jour. Then there are the other star players who are also constantly on the injury list but tend to gut it out with less fanfare (the names Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu come to mind).
But when Lawrence Timmons was seen walking around the Steelers facility in a boot following his ankle sprain against Buffalo two weeks ago, my antenna definitely went up. And that’s an injury that deserved more focus going into Thursday’s opener against the Tennessee Titans.
Coach Mike Tomlin called him “a question mark” heading into the Labor Day weekend. He wasn’t practicing as recently as Sunday.
“I should be out a week… and some change,” Timmons said last Wednesday before the pre-season finale against the Carolina Panthers.
Let’s hope Timmons’ definition of a week and “some change” somehow means less than eight days because the inside linebacker has quickly become indispensable in the Steelers defense.
Certainly Steelers fans have elevated their attention on Timmons this year because he is now a starter. The third year pro replaced Larry Foote at inside linebacker when the Steelers let Foote walk away to Detroit.
Because the Florida State product played a back up role last year and hardly played with any impact in his rookie season of 2007, his impact in 2008 probably went under-discussed.
It’s true the former Seminole looked like a bust in his rookie year. He rarely played anything but special teams thanks to both injury and ineffectiveness.
But as early as mini-camp of ’08, the coaching staff saw Timmons mature both physically and mentally. It became clear by training camp; an agenda was needed to get the former first round pick into game action more in his second campaign.
But Timmons wasn’t good enough yet to displace Footer as a starter, particularly since playing the run in the Steelers 3-4 scheme was Foote’s greatest strength, and the greatest weakness of Timmons who had been playing mostly outside linebacker since coming to Pittsburgh.
Where defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau and company saw a crack to get Timmons in the line-up was on passing downs.
To begin with, Foote never was a great cover guy. Timmons was clearly more athletic. And what he lacked in comparison to Foote in size, he definitely made up for in terms of speed, versatility, coverage skills and pass rush potential.
So Lebeau started deploying Timmons in various sub packages. During much of last year (and training camp this year) Timmons would be the other linebacker on the field with James Farrior in the club’s nickel, quarter, and occasionally even dime packages.
The most important residual effect is that Timmons’ presence in the “underneath” part of the coverage schemes allowed Troy Polamalu to play a more traditional safety role.
Since 2004, Polamalu spent a great deal of time sniffing around the line of scrimmage trying to rush the passer and cover big tight ends in the middle of the field.
For two years it worked great. Polamalu was such a unique athlete in that role other defense weren’t ready for what he could do.
But by 2006 teams across the league started honoring Polamalu’s increasingly predictable pass rushes, and they were assigning linemen to block him. Suddenly, the 205 pound Polamalu was getting swallowed up by 300 pound offensive linemen and the Steelers best athlete was a non factor on many of the defensive plays.
With Timmons emerging, Polamalu was allowed to patrol the back half of the field in a more traditional safety position than the all-purpose, havoc wreaker he was sculpted into early in his career.
And Polamalu endorses the evolution of the defense. “Without question. Whenever you get guys out there like him disguising and coming all from the same side, or spreading out across the field in different blitzes and different looks, everybody has a better chance to make more plays in the back end,” said Polamalu during training camp. “I wasn’t doing as much disguising and blitzing as in years past. And, in turn, our team was more successful.”
Granted, Polamalu went through all of last year without a sack as a result. But his interception total jumped to seven. He combined for five the previous three seasons.
As of now, the Steelers seem torn about how to fill the void if Timmons has to sit out Thursday.
Keyaron Fox will fill in when the base defense takes the field on first down and in most rushing situations. That’s not a big loss. Timmons is still finding his way through the nuances of playing against the run in that position. Fox may even be better at that part of the job to tell the truth. And Fox had a great pre-season.
But if Timmons can’t play in the pass defense sub packages, Tomlin has suggested that he may move Polamalu back to his former role playing closer to the line of scrimmage. The other option is more playing time for safety Ryan Mundy.
Since Timmons is often times a linebacker playing a safety’s job, that shouldn’t be a huge deal in terms of scheme.
But Mundy is clearly not the blitzing threat that Timmons is. Plus, if other teams do hand off out of a 2nd and long situation, Mundy is going to have to bow up and play tough against the run.
“You do have to be a little bit more run conscious, and play strong against the run in that position than in, say, a traditional safeties role. But it’s something I’m aware of and been working on and hopefully I can get the job done,” said Mundy.
“I’m about 235. He’s about 215.So yeah. He might be a little lighter I guess. But he can handle it. I’ve got complete faith in that guy,” said Timmons of Mundy.
Let’s hope he’s right. Steeler fans just started having faith in Timmons, after all.