It was, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said this week, "one of the best and happiest days of my life." Aug. 7? Absolutely. That was the night he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. May 21, 2009? Of course. The Steelers visited the White House and President Barack Obama singled him out by name. Feb. 1, 2009? You bet. The Steelers survived the Arizona Cardinals to win Super Bowl XLIII. Feb. 5, 2006? Sure. The Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks to become Super Bowl XL champions.
All were huge days for LeBeau in his magical football career. But he was talking about another day -- March 15. That was the day the Steelers re-signed inside linebacker Larry Foote.
"He's a plus -- on and off the field," LeBeau said. "He's special -- on and off the field."
LeBeau's respect for Foote is understandable; Foote had a starring role in the two Super Bowl wins. It is especially understandable this week; Foote carried the load for injured linebacker LaMarr Woodley against the Miami Dolphins Sunday, making one of the game's big plays when he stopped running back Ronnie Brown for no gain on a third-and-1 play from midfield early in the fourth quarter.
"Larry Foote did what Larry Foote does," LeBeau said.
It was the biggest of Foote's six tackles in the game. He took over at inside linebacker in the base defense after Woodley's hamstring injury in the second quarter, bumping Lawrence Timmons to Woodley's outside spot. He also had their only sack when he got to quarterback Chad Henne in the third quarter.
"He's been waiting for his chance to show that he's still got it," inside linebacker James Farrior said.
That's why the Steelers brought Foote back after he spent a season with the Detroit Lions, signing him to a three-year, $9.3 million contract, including a $1.8 million bonus. It's not just that he's one of their more respected veterans, an emotional leader along the lines of former linebacker Joey Porter. He still can play and knows LeBeau's complicated defense inside out.
That knowledge enabled Foote to make that third-and-1 play even though he busted the technique. He took a gamble and sliced behind pulling guard Richie Incognito to tackle Brown because he knew where his gap control help was.
"The coaches hate it when he does that," Farrior said, grinning. "If you take that risk, you had better make the tackle. [Foote] always does."
Expect more of the same from Foote Sunday night against the New Orleans Saints if Woodley (hamstring) isn't full-go. Foote was glad to see Woodley practice Thursday, but he would welcome the playing time and the challenge if Woodley is limited. "It's been a long time since I was a backup," he said.
Foote started every game for the Steelers from 2004-08. He asked to be traded or released after the second Super Bowl season because he realized Timmons was an emerging star. The Steelers obliged, enabling Foote to sign with his hometown Lions. He was the starter on a 2-14 team.
"The grass isn't always greener on the other side," he said.
Foote jumped at the chance to come back to the Steelers, accepting, if reluctantly, his place behind Timmons and Farrior. "He's too much of a professional to ever say anything about it," Farrior said. "But I know, as a competitor, he wants to be on the field every play."
It helps that Timmons has grown into one of the NFL's top linebackers and, I believe, the Steelers' MVP in their 5-1 start. "I've never seen a guy since I've been here with his versatility," Foote said. "He plays inside and can go outside. No one else can do that. It's a whole different skill set and a whole different mentality."
It also helps that Farrior, 35, is Foote's best friend. "He can still do it," Foote said. "It's a mental thing with him. I hear a lot of older players say they wake up one morning and they just don't want to do it anymore. Their body can't take it. He hasn't reached that point. He still loves it."
Foote, 30, still loves it, too. LeBeau has made it a point to get him more snaps. "Larry knows we look at him as a starter," he said. Even if Woodley plays every play against the Saints, Foote will give Farrior a break for a couple of series.
"I'm glad I'm here," Foote said. "From a competitor's standpoint, it's tough. But as far as being where I want to be -- on and off the field -- this is where I want to be. I'm comfortable here."
There's a lesson there.
That's right, Foote already conveyed it.
The grass isn't always greener ...
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