Back to future: Steelers' Timmons returns to OLB
Before Lawrence Timmons became a $50 million inside linebacker in the NFL, he was a star outside linebacker in college, a player the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted as the heir apparent to All-Pro Joey Porter on the outside.
For the time being, at least, Timmons is heading back to his future as the next in the lineage of great outside linebackers the Steelers have produced.
With James Harrison out for several weeks due to a broken orbital bone around his right eye, Timmons will start in his place at right outside linebacker. Veteran Larry Foote will return to the starting spot he occupied for five seasons in Pittsburgh: Timmons' gig at right inside linebacker.
The Steelers maintain there isn't all that much of a transition for Timmons to make. His transition was from the outside to the inside when he began his NFL career.
The Steelers (2-2) play Tennessee (3-1) on Sunday.
''He'll be fine - he never played inside linebacker until he got here,'' veteran safety Ryan Clark noted. ''That was his original position, a position he was really drafted to play until James Harrison became James Harrison. And then we had to find somewhere else to put him.''
That was in the inside in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense - ironically, originally to replace Foote, who asked to be released after the Steelers' victory in the 2009 Super Bowl. Foote had started every game for Pittsburgh at the position from 2004-08, but at the time, he saw the writing on the wall with the team and Timmons.
The Steelers drafted Timmons with their first-round pick in 2007 - the team's first draft choice with Mike Tomlin as coach - and the 6-foot-1, 234-pound linebacker with 4.6 speed had shown enough with his freakish athleticism at that point that it was obvious the Steelers needed to find a place for him.
With Harrison winning the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008 and LaMarr Woodley - drafted a round after Timmons in 2007 - piling up 11 1/2 sacks in his first season as a starter, the only place the Steelers had for Timmons was on the inside.
''The good thing about him is ever since we've had him, we've played him at both positions,'' defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. ''He's going to be fast wherever you put him. He's a fast player.''
Timmons' quickness and athleticism allow him to be versatile enough that the Steelers brought back Foote after he spent one season with the Detroit Lions. Foote was signed as a backup to both Timmons and the other inside linebacker, veteran James Farrior.
Foote, who has received significant snaps this season, also signed with the understanding that injuries to either of the outside backers would result in him starting - a scenario made possible by the fact that Timmons would move to the outside if such a case arose.
''The advantage is a lot of teams have two coaches for inside and outside linebackers; our coach (Keith Butler), he coaches both of them,'' Foote said. ''So you're hearing the corrections for the outside, and everybody's hearing ours and vice versa. That helps us.
''But the main thing is that Lawrence has the God-given ability that he's able to do that, play both and be that person.''
Timmons had an all-around season in his second as a starter in 2010, when Pittsburgh made its third Super Bowl appearance in six years. He led the team in tackles, had three sacks, two interceptions, nine passes defended and two forced fumbles.
In LeBeau's 3-4 scheme, the outside linebackers are more likely to rush the passer than rack up a high volume of tackles. Timmons had a career-high seven sacks in 2009.
''I'm pretty comfortable with this because I've been playing the whole week at outside, and me and the coaches have been sprucing up the little things that I haven't seen in a while,'' Timmons said. ''Obviously, the more reps you get, the more you're going to see. But I've started at outside linebacker before, so I am sure I will be fine.''
Timmons filled in for Harrison and Woodley a game each in 2008, and he has spelled them at times when either has left a game early due to injury. LeBeau estimated that Timmons has ''probably six or seven games'' worth of experience on the outside.
''I know what to expect,'' said Timmons. ''In the NFL, you never know. I've played the majority of the time at inside linebacker, but I'm an unselfish person willing to do whatever for the team. If I just play my assignment, I'll be fine.''