By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Third-year player Lawrence Timmons has a high-ankle sprain and has been ruled out for the NFL-opener against the Tennessee Titans tonight at 8:30 at Heinz Field, so six-year veteran Keyaron Fox will get his first start with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
This loss might have hurt the Steelers in previous years, but the club is so deep at linebacker Timmons will hardly be missed short term.
Sure, his athleticism allows the Steelers to do a lot with him, as far as blitzing and pass-coverage are concerned, but Fox certainly won’t be much of a drop-off if at all.
A special teams standout last season, his first with the Steelers, Fox was chosen as a captain for that unit this year. And his play at inside linebacker during the preseason, caused the Steelers’ management to believe the transition for him to a starting spot would be seamless.
“He’s really made a case for himself being a reliable football player,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Coming into the situation, backup inside linebacker would be one of the places that could be worrisome. (But) this guy can play. He made plays all preseason. Got a great deal of trust in him. If called upon I know he can uphold the standards of the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
With a starting lineup that includes pass-rushing demons James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley on the outside, as well as veteran James Farrior and Timmons inside, the Steelers linebacking corps is among the NFL’s best.
But with Fox, Arnold Harrison, Andre Frazier and Patrick Bailey as the backups, the Steelers are as deep and talented as ever.
And Fox will get to show what he can do in an expanded role.
“I hope to excel out there on the field,” Fox said. “I’ve been overemphasizing, learning the minute details of my game at that position. Hopefully, when the game comes, it will be second nature for me. I have to just play solid football, do my assignments and let the defense work itself out.
“(But) I’m not nervous. I’m excited. It’s my first start with the Steelers, (so) I’m very excited and look forward to it. I have a lot of family coming up. Both sides of my family are from Tennessee, so it’s a big game for them as well.”
At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, Fox should be a solid run-stopper, which former Steelers’ starting inside linebacker Larry Foote excelled during his tenure. Along with starting in the base defense and as a special-teams hit man, Fox will play in the nickel defense, as well as goal-line and short-yardage situations.
Fox showed how well he could stuff the run against Carolina back DeAngelo Williams in the preseason finale. Williams, who ran for 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, was hammered for a two-yard loss on third-and-one.
“I feel like one of the strong points of my game is tackling and stopping the run,” Fox said. “My biggest thing is just getting to the football.”
And Fox does that as well as anyone on the Steelers, backup linebacker Frazier said when asked about his teammate.
“Once the play starts, the beast comes out of him,” Frazier said. “He’s not too cool and calm when he’s rocking somebody. I guess he has that inner drive that forces him to go out there and work hard every day. And all that comes out when he drills an opponent.”
Fox is hopeful that after one season with the Steelers
he’s better able to expand his role with the club. And he certainly will need to do that this week.
“Last year I was able to squeak through the preseason with limited calls and making a few checks and stuff,” Fox said, “but I don’t think I was really prepared for a full season and knowing 100 percent of what I was supposed to do. This year is a lot better for me.”
While Timmons hasn’t proven to be as effective as either Foote or Fox in that area, he gives the Steelers more options from that position. But not this week. Timmons has not practiced since injuring the ankle during the Aug. 29 preseason game with Buffalo.
“Yeah, it’s tough,” Timmons said. “To work so hard in two-a-days and the preseason, but that’s life. I’ll take positives out of it and be the best I can be when I get back. I can move around. I don’t want to mess it up. It’s a very sensitive injury. It takes time.”
With the depth the Steelers have at linebacker, Timmons is afforded all the time he needs to get healthy.