- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
LATROBE, Pa. -- Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons laughs when asked to compare where he was two years ago as a rookie first-round pick to this season, which he is entering as a full-time starter for the first time.
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
Lawrence Timmons begins the season as a starter for the first time in his career.
"When I came here, I was really lost," Timmons said candidly. "It was different for me. I felt like I needed to make a big impact and I put a lot of pressure on myself. Now, I see it's not like that anymore. If you do your job there are more than enough plays to go around for everybody."
Timmons, who replaces veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote, is one of only two new starters for the defending Super Bowl champions in 2009. But he's also the biggest reason Pittsburgh feels optimistic that its defense has the potential to be more dynamic than the unit that finished No. 1 in the NFL last season. That makes Timmons our choice as the AFC North's Emerging Star for 2009.
Timmons' natural athleticism provides new freedoms for coverage and blitz packages that head coach Mike Tomlin and longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau didn't have before. Timmons joins fellow 2007 draft pick LaMarr Woodley and Pro Bowlers James Harrison and James Farrior to form what many believe is the league's best linebacker corps this season.
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"Lawrence fits right in with this group," Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "He's playing with some really good guys, and when you're playing with good guys you have a standard to uphold. We know we're going to be a good defense, and we just want him to do his part, and I know he will."
For nearly two seasons Timmons was that shiny new toy that remained on the sidelines. He played mostly special teams as a rookie. But things began to finally click for Timmons in his second year.
The coaching staff began finding ways to get Timmons on the field by replacing Foote in favor of Timmons in nickel situations and obvious passing downs. Timmons started two games and put up solid numbers mostly as a reserve, recording 65 tackles, five sacks and an interception. His pick was an 89-yard return that helped the Steelers seal a big win against the New England Patriots in Week 13.
Last week in a preseason game against the Washington Redskins, Timmons added another interception and five tackles before the starters were pulled. The Steelers are using him to cover a lot of ground in pass coverage in addition to blitzing him from all different angles.
Timmons' versatility is a major plus. He played multiple positions in college at Florida State and was the first sub at all four linebacking positions for Pittsburgh last season.
"I always try to do everything," said Timmons. "I want to be good inside and outside. You will see me this season blitzing from both, because I've always done that. I don't really see a difference between the two. Coaches always taught me if you do everything a team is going to use you. You can't be one-dimensional."
Under Tomlin, Pittsburgh ha
s played and will play some Cover 2 defense. It puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers to cover ground in the middle of the field, but Timmons has made it look effortless thus far in minicamps and training camp.
Timmons is extremely fluid in his movements. He's able to shadow tight ends when in man coverage and drop back and turn his hips to easily get to his zone assignments. Timmons also happens to be one of the team's most explosive hitters when flowing to the football.
"I think he's just as good an athlete as Troy Polamalu," Farrior said. "And Troy is probably the best we got."
Farrior, 34, will be lining up next to Timmons, 23, at inside linebacker this year and is serving as his mentor. Farrior said everything that he is teaching Timmons is mental, because "There is nothing physical that I can teach him. He's got all those tools."
Timmons credits teammates like Farrior and his coaches for being patient with him. Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme is complex and can be overwhelming for a young player, especially when you're trying to find your role and learn both inside and outside linebacker simultaneously.
This year LeBeau is installing a lot for Timmons as a new full-time starter.
"The coaches' confidence in me is so high, and my game is going up to the next level because the coaches are expanding everything with me," Timmons said. "It's just a beautiful thing and it's fun. I feel like I'm in college again."
Timmons may feel like he's in college, but the key is he no longer feels like a rookie. He understands his role in the defense and isn't playing too fast in order to make plays.
With Harrison, Farrior, Woodley, Polamalu, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Ike Taylor among the names in a star-studded defense, Pittsburgh had the rare luxury of waiting for Timmons to come into his own as an NFL player.
Now, in his third season, the Steelers are finally ready to unleash Timmons on the rest of the league.
"Two years ago he was just a young rookie with a lot of athletic ability. Typical of any other rookie we bring in, he didn't really know a whole lot about our defense," Farrior said. "He had to come in and go through all the learning pains. I think he's done a good job of that and now he's ready to go."