The Philadelphia Eagles, the Steelers preseason opponent tonight at Heinz Field, have assembled a Pro Bowl-type secondary with the addition of cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to go with incumbent Asante Samuel. Scouring the NFL with an electron microscope might not reveal another team with so much talent at one position.
Except for the Steelers.
The collection of linebackers in their 3-4 defense is unmatched in the NFL, especially on the outside with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley -- the most productive linebacker sack tandem in the league since 2008. And inside linebacker James Farrior has been to two Pro Bowls and is coming off a season in which he might have been their best linebacker.
- Game: Steelers vs. Eagles, 8 p.m.
- Where: Heinz Field
- TV: WPGH
But now the Steelers have another member of that unit on the verge of stardom, a player Farrior said "can be the best linebacker in the NFL."
His name is Lawrence Timmons, and none of his teammates mention his name without using the words "Pro Bowl" in the same sentence.
"He's already the most athletic linebacker in the league right now," Farrior said.
"The sky is the limit for him," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
"When you have the talent he has and you understand the game, then you're going to be leading the league," said linebackers coach Keith Butler. "And he's got the opportunity to do that."
The first draft choice after coach Mike Tomlin took over in 2007, Timmons started to flash his awesome ability last season when he led the team in tackles (149), even though he appeared to level off after a quick start. He plays the Mack (or weakside) position next to Farrior, who plays the Buck position, in the middle of the unit. The defense is designed for the inside linebackers to make a lot of tackles, and they do (Farrior was second with 137).
But, if such a thing is possible, Timmons looks faster and more disruptive this season, reminding his teammates that, on a unit loaded with stars, he has the potential to shine the brightest.
He's quick and explosive," said Harrison, a four-time Pro Bowler and the 2008 NFL defensive player of the year. "He had a better understanding of the defense last year, and this year looks like he will be even better. It looks like he's getting faster and more explosive each year."
Finding room to be a standout among the Steelers linebackers is like trying to get face time in a photo shoot with Jennifer Lopez. Especially on a unit where Harrison and Woodley have each registered double-digit sacks in each of the past three seasons -- a club record.
Despite being used in a number of blitz situations, Timmons had only three sacks in 2010, something he hopes to change this season.
"I feel like I can make more plays and make all parts of my game better," Timmons said. "As far as pass-rushing, I felt like I dropped the ball there because I felt like I missed quite a few sacks. I feel like I can help the team more with that this year."
Asked why he feels that way, Timmons said, "I think my speed kind of works against me. The quarterback gives you a double move, and I run past him. I felt I could have had at least double-digit sacks last year because I had so many hurries. And those hurries turn into missed sacks pretty much."
Nobody else, though, is worried that Timmons' closing speed -- only Troy Polamalu can match it among his teammates -- works against him.
"That's fine with me," Butler said. "If you're an aggressive linebacker, that happens sometimes. I'm not going to calm him down."
"It's a problem I don't mind dealing with," LeBeau said.
Timmons quickly has become one of the unit's key components, and not just because of his immense talent.
Timmons' contract is up at the end of the season, and the Steelers would like to extend his deal before the start of the regular season Sept. 11. But, because of the lockout and the short amount of time the team has had to build their roster for this season, any extension may have to wait until after the season.
Talks have not started with Timmons or Polamalu, whose contract also expires after the season. Meantime, Timmons will worry only about getting better and, if his teammates are correct, becoming one of their brightest stars.
"I'm definitely striving for that," Timmons said. "I'm working hard every day. I definitely want to be the best at what I do, That's why I'm doing it."
He's right on the verge.
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com ; twitter: @gerrydulac