There is no battle between Larry Foote, the incumbent, and Lawrence Timmons, the former No. 1 draft pick, for the starting inside linebacker position known as the "Mack." At least, not in the mind of linebackers coach Keith Butler, who said the job belongs to Foote.
But Timmons is going to make it difficult for coach Mike Tomlin not to get him on the playing field, especially after the way he has been performing in his second training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
And especially after the performance he put on Friday night in a practice at Latrobe Stadium, where Timmons, the Steelers' No. 1 draft pick last year, looked like a young Kendrell Bell in a pass-rushing drill, exploding through anyone who got in his way.
"He moved around well; he moved around real well," Butler said yesterday, less than 24 hours after Timmons was the dominating star of a drill pitting linebackers against running backs in blitz pickup.
"He still did some technical things I'm not happy with, and we're going to get those corrected. But the great thing about him is, he's willing to be corrected, willing to be coached, and, if he's that, he'll get better."
Timmons is a different player from the one who reported to training camp last season as the 15th overall pick in the NFL and not just because he has added seven pounds of muscle and weighs 243 pounds.
He injured his groin the first week of camp, spent most of the preseason watching from the sideline and got little playing time behind James Harrison, Clark Haggans and even fellow rookie LaMarr Woodley at outside linebacker.
This year, he has been switched to inside linebacker -- a position he played at Florida State -- in a move that even Foote thought was designed to get Timmons on the field a lot quicker and possibly replace him as a starter. That wasn't going to happen at outside linebacker where Harrison, a Pro Bowl pick in his first season as a starter, and Woodley are the starters.
"The coaches haven't addressed it to me in that manner, I just perceive that and I just knew that, soon as they put him behind me," Foote said. "One good thing, the way I look at it, they didn't draft him originally to play behind me, so it wasn't like they weren't trying to replace me. They thought the best place for him is inside in our defense."
For now, Foote will be the starter and play alongside James Farrior in most of the basic 3-4 packages. Timmons has been getting time as one of the linebackers in the nickel and quarter substitution packages, where he can use his quickness, athleticism and -- after what he exhibited Friday night -- his explosiveness.
Timmons hit rookie tight end Dezmond Sherrod so hard that Sherrod, an undrafted free agent, injured his neck and did not practice yesterday.
"I'm not thinking about that," Timmons said. "We're just trying to work hard to get ready to have a winning season and get ready for these preseason games."
But, even Timmons conceded, "I'm more comfortable because of the reps and coach has coached me to do what I need to do. So, I feel real comfortable."
The Steelers began working Timmons at inside linebacker late in the 2007 season, getting him ready for the transition to his second year. He even picked up enough of his responsibilities that he was used as a replacement in the dime defense for injured safety Troy Polamalu against the Miami Dolphins -- an indication of Timmons' athletic ability.
Turns out, the biggest impact Timmons made that game was accidentally ending the season of Dolphins running back Ricky Williams in his first game after being reinstated by commissioner Roger Goodell. Timmons stepped on Williams' back and tore his right pectoral muscle while trying to recover a fumble.
"There's been a leap in terms of knowledge of the defense," Butler said. "And there are some things you just can't coach, of course. We see that. But he has a long way to go."
The road is not as far as it was last year, though.
"Doing and looking are two different things," Timmons said. "Having the offseason [to work at] inside linebacker made a difference, totally. My rookie season was about learning more than anything. You have to show them in shoulder pads."
Timmons is doing that, slowly but surely.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1466. First Published August 3, 2008 4:00 AM