Thoughts on Mike Tomlin, Lawrence Timmons and Steelers Head Coaches First Draft Picks

Lawrence Timmons decision to sign with the Miami Dolphins marked a sad day in Steelers Nation. For ten years Lawrence Timmons had been a mainstay of the Steelers defense, first giving Dick LeBeau and the Keith Butler a durable, reliable presence in the middle of the field.

  • Lawrence Timmons had also been Mike Tomlin’s first draft pick.

Commentators were quick to assert that a head coach losing his maiden draft selection to the free agent market means something, and it does, but just what does it actually mean?

Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, Ryan Clark, Brett Swain, Super Bowl XLV

Lawrence Timmons goes for a loose ball in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images via Zimbio

It sounds sexy to say that a new head coach defines his legacy with his first draft pick and sometimes it’s true. Jimmy Johnson certainly defined his legacy in Dallas for the better by picking Troy Aikman just as Norv Turner did the opposite by picking Heath Shuler.

  • But in other cases the analogy falls flat.

Does anyone really want to try to argue that Bill Walsh in any way defined his legacy in San Francisco by picking making James Owens his first pick in 1979?

Which brings us to the question – how, and to what extent does Lawrence Timmons define Mike Tomlin’s legacy in Pittsburgh?

Steelers Head Coaches & Their First Picks

Steelers history gives a mixed bag when it comes to head coaches and their first picks. And this is a lot more difficult discussion to have in Pittsburgh than say in Cleveland or Washington, as the Steelers have only had 3 head coaches since the end of the Lyndon Johnson administration.

Buddy Parker’s first picks was Len Dawson, which is painfully appropriate for his legacy. Dawson is one of various quarterbacks the Steelers brought into the league that won Super Bowls and/or NFL Championships for someone other than Pittsburgh.

Bill Austin’s first pick ever was a fullback by the name of Dick Leftridge who played all of one season and had a total of 8 yards rushing and got cut the next summer for show up overweight.

Some have suggested that Dick Leftridge could have been a victim of Bill Austin’s racism, while another source consulted to verify this argues that Leftride did in fact lack  the commitment to conditioning. Either way Austin’s pick of Leftridge was certainly indicative of the Steelers failure with the draft.

Joe Greene, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Sr.

Chuck Noll and Joe Greene Shake hands in front of Art Rooney Sr. in 1982. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On the flip side, picking Joe Greene first most certainly defined Chuck Noll’s legacy as Joe Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh was the fulcrum that turned a perennial loser on to the path to being the greatest football team in the history of the sport.

In contrast, assessing the impact of Bill Cowher’s decision to pick (along with Tom Donahoe) Leon Searcy on The Chin’s legacy is a little more nebulous. To a certain degree, picking Searcy signaled a full-throated embrace of physical, power football that characterized the Cowher years in Pittsburgh.

  • But would anyone ever argue that Leon Searcy was a legacy defining pick?

I daresay the answer is no.

2007 Tomlin Takes Charge, Picks Lawrence Timmons First

The Steelers turned heads in the 2007 NFL Draft when they picked two outside linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley with picks number one and number two. (Yes, the Steelers originally picked Timmons as an outside linebacker.)

Unfortunately, Lawrence Timmons early career doesn’t give opponents of the “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” nonsense much ammunition. Timmons played very little as a rookie and, while he made impressive contributions in spot duty in 2008, most of those came at outside linebacker in relief of James Harrison. Timmons started in 2009, but the fact that he split time with Keyaron Fox had some fans labeling him a bust.

  • But if Timmons took a few years to find his NFL footing, he exploded in 2010.
Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers vs Titans, Bo Scaife

Lawrence Timmons slams Titans Bo Scaife as James Harrison looks on in Pittsburgh’s 2010 win over Tennessee. Photo Credit: New Pittsburgh Courier

And from 2010 onwards, Lawrence Timmons clearly established himself as a Mike Tomlin talent acquisition success story, even if he had a subpar 2011 campaign. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed:

Timmons was explosive. And productive. And he played week in and week out. Timmons started the last 111 games (counting postseason) that the Steelers played. In his eight regular seasons as the starter, he averaged 95 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 passes defensed and 1.4 forced fumbles per season.

Mike Tomlin likes to draft his players, especially premium picks, young and the statistics that Jim Wexell cites show just how effective that strategy has been. The Steelers win 8-8 reloading seasons and the “4 seasons between playoff wins” chant were frustrating for sure.

In seminal 2014 article Déjà vu All Over Again , Jim Wexell compared the post-2011 Steelers to the 1998-2000 Steeler teams and argued that the presence of Ben Roethlisberger as opposed to Kordell Stewart under center is what explains Pittsburgh’s ability to keep the franchise’s head above water.

He’s right of course, but quarterbacks can’t carry a team on their own, and Lawrence Timmons steadfast playmaking presence on the Steelers defense during those years was arguably just as important as Roethlisberger’s was to the defense during that time span.

Lawrence Timmons, Thad Lewis, Lawrence Timmons sack Thad Lewis, Steelers vs Browns,

Lawrence Timmons downs Thad Lewis of the Browns in the penultimate play of 2012. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Think back to the Pittsburgh’s 2012 finale. The Steelers limped into the game against the Browns with an 7-8 record and, with the Steelers defending a two touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter, Lawrence Timmons ended the game with dramatic back-to-back sacks.

It was almost as if Timmons was proclaiming to the rest of the league, “Yes, the Steelers are down, but we’re not out.”

Lawrence Timmons and Tomlin’s Legacy

Lawrence Timmons continued to be the Steelers best defender for the next several seasons. By 2014 one could argue that Cameron Heyward had taken over that role, and by 2016 with Cam Heyward out, Ryan Shazier had established himself as Pittsburgh’s Alpha Male on defense.

  • But Lawrence Timmons continued to dominate, as 2016 second half surge proved.

Despite losing its best player, and despite starting rookies Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave the Steelers defense staged and impressive turn around during the second half of 2016, and Lawrence was a big part of it coming up with two sacks and two interceptions in the last 7 games, followed by his twin sacks to close the win over the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs.

It is just as unfortunate it the game marked Lawrence Timmons final game as a Pittsburgh Steeler. If Mike Tomlin is to reach the Mountain Top again, he’ll have to do it without the Law Dog.

  • In that sense, Lawrence Timmons’ impact on Mike Tomlin’s legacy falls somewhere between that of his predecessors.

Chuck Noll reached the Mountain Top with Joe Greene, and never sniffed it without him. Leon Searcy helped Bill Cowher broach the pinnacle in Super Bowl XXX, but the time The Chin summited in Super Bowl XL Searcy was a distant memory.

Mike Tomlin and Lawrence Timmons might have only reached the Mountain Top once together in Super Bowl XLIII, but Lawrence Timmons did so much to keep the Mountain Top in reach during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh.

And for that, Steelers Nation says, “Thank You Lawrence Timmons.”

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Steelers 2015 Draft Needs: Inside Linebacker – Depth Chart Is Already Deep

As each day passes in April the 2015 NFL Draft approaches, and with it so does our own assessment of the Steelers roster and depth chart relative to their needs in the draft. Today’s focus is the Steelers draft needs at inside linebacker.

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Analyzing Steelers Depth at Inside Linebacker – The Starters

If there is one area of the depth chart where the Pittsburgh Steelers are truly set, it is inside linebacker. In fact, breaking down the Steelers starters at inside linebacker is hard because of that.

The group is led by Lawrence Timmons, the first draft pick of the Mike Tomlin era. In truth, Timmons did not deliver much in terms of immediate value and his development was sporadic. Injuries ruined his rookie year. In 2008 Timmons showed himself to be a versatile backup at both inside linebacker and outside linebacker, and he forced Larry Foote off the roster.

However, he struggled in 2009 as a starter, and even split time with Keyaron Fox. But Foote returned in 2010, but couldn’t shake Timmons for his starting spot, and Timmons blossomed into a stud. However, he did not play well in 2011, leading several to question the Steelers decision to renew his contract.

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Timmons has answered those questions. Since 2012 Lawrence Timmons has been the Steelers most consistent player on defense and arguably their best all around. He might not make the splash plays at the level of a Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Greg Lloyd or James Harrison, but he’s around the ball, plays well and steps up when necessary as his hit on Jamaal Charles in the Steelers win over Kansas City shows.

Opposite of Timmons the Steelers have…. Well it’s hard to say, because the starting duties were shared by Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, and Vince Williams, all of whom made contributions and all of whom were playing well by the season’s end. Expect Shazier to win the starting job heading into 2015, but if he should falter the Steelers have not one but two men standing behind him.

Analyzing Steelers Depth at Inside Linebacker – the Back Ups

Sean Spence and Vince Williams really are “starters in waiting,” but the Steelers depth at inside linebacker goes beyond these two players. First they have of Terrence Garvin Bengals Sunday Night Football fame.

Before making a name for himself on special teams, Garvin was working his way into the 3rd down package. 2014 Draftee Jordan Zumwalt will also return from injured reserve to compete for a roster spot. Arthur Moats can also do duty at inside linebacker, although his services are needed elsewhere.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2015

Priority Status of Inside Linebacker for Steelers in 2015 NFL Draft

Like Wide Receiver, inside linebacker is an area on the depth chart which flipped in rapid fashion for the Steelers.

  • On opening day 2013 inside linebacker was a glaring weakness.

On the eve of the 2014 NFL Draft inside linebacker was markedly stronger. Today the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker is clearly the team’s deepest, and therefore the draft priority status for inside linebacker for the Steelers in the 2015 NFL Draft can only be considered as Low.

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Steelers Defense Delivers in 27-17 Vikings Win

Brett Favre dealt Bill Cowher his first coaching loss when he made his first start back on September 27, 1992. It was a wacky day, which set the tone for all future meetings between the Steelers and Favre. Consider:

  • In 1992, Hall of Famer Rod Woodson muffs a punt and a commits a mind-numbing coverage error, giving Green Bay two touchdowns in a 17-3 Packers win
  • In 1995, Steelers backups play flawlessly, but Yancy Thigpen drops a sure game-winning touchdown catch as time expires on Christmas Eve
  • In 1998, defending a 27-3 lead, the Steelers begin the 4th quarter by fumbling at the 12, Keith McKenzie returns it 88 yards for a touchdown. The Packers score 17 unanswered points, but Pittsburgh holds on.
  • In 2005, with Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, and Willie Parker out, Charlie Batch throws for all of 65 yards and Duce Stanely runs for another 76. But the real offense is Troy Polamalu whose 77 yard fumble return keeps the Steelers ahead for good.

Favre of course, has started an NFL record 275 consecutive games since that first meeting in 1992. A lot has changed since then. Favre has even switched teams – twice – but one thing remains constant:

Expect the uncanny when Number Four faces off against the Steelers.*

Steelers vs Vikings, Brett Favre fumble Steelers, Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley

Brent Keisel forces a Brett Favre fumble, setting up LaMarr Woodley’s 77-yard fumble return. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via NY Times

The Tradition Continues

Sunday’s game at Heinz Field lived up to tradition.

At 6-0, Minnesota came to Pittsburgh as one of the NFL’s annual story book teams. Already armed with super-human Adrian Peterson at running back and an unforgiving defense, newly arrived 40 year old Brett Favre has shown that he still as enough late-game heroics left in him to transform the Vikings.

When the last Minnesota team with Super Bowl aspirations visited Pittsburgh in 1989, the Steelers exposed them as pretenders. With Brett Favre, they arrived today as contenders.

In spite of the Steelers 3 game winning streak they entered the game to a chorus of questions, the most pointed of which was: Can the Steelers defense close?

On Sunday the Steelers defense answered that question with a definitive “YES!”

A quick look at the stat sheet might lead one to think otherwise:

  • Favre threw 51 passes for 334 yards
  • Adrian Peterson had 129 all-purpose yards
  • The Vikings had 21 first downs to the Steelers 14
  • Minnesota dominated with a 13 minute edge in time of possession

But the Steelers defense had it where it counted and when it counted. They not only held Brett Favre’s high octane offense to 10 points, they also put up 14 of their own.

  • Those were the only two stats that mattered.

Steelers, Vikings, Came to Play Hard, Hit Hard

Credit Brad Childress, Adrian Peterson, and Brett Favre for having their troops fired up and ready to go.

Most experts expected a high-flying shoot out. Instead the Steelers and Vikings gave the fans every bit of their money’s worth in a hard hitting slug fest.

From the get go, this one had the feel a game that would come down to who wanted it the most. For that reason, while the Steelers two-touchdown plays will rightly make the highlight reels, the key defensive stand for the Steelers perhaps came on the Viking’s first possession in the third quarter.

Favre took his team 65 yards to the Steelers one, gaining the lion’s share of his yards on a 35 yard pass that Troy Polamalu, and only Troy Polamalum prevented from becoming a touchdown.

Give an offense with the NFL’s best rusher a legendary quarterback a 1st and goal at the one and what happens? Most people would assume that is an easy six. Privately, most defenses would have conceded as much.

Not the Steelers.

The Steel Curtain showed they were more than a match for two Adrian Peterson runs and two Favre throws from the one.

Steelers Offense Creates Opportunities

The other key series came at the end of the first half, when Ben Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 8 plays with a minute 39 remaining to land a touchdown with a 40 yard scoring strike.

On a day when balance and rhythm eluded Bruce Arian’s offense – Rashard Mendenhall averaged 6.9 yards a carry but only got the ball ten times. The Steelers offense created and then seized their own opportunities.

Woodley, Fox Steal the Show

Fan of course will rightly remember this game because LaMarr Woodley and Keyaron Fox put on a clinic on seizing on opportunities.

The Steelers had looked to be salting the game away when Rashard Mendenhall fumbled at the goal line. Brett Favre, started at his 3 and marched his team down to the Steelers 8 yard line, and the Vikings looked poised to take the lead. Brett Keisel had other ideas, strip sacking Favre, and LaMarr Woodley did the rest:

Never let it be said that Bob Ligashesky’s special teams are not generous. On Sunday they were kind enough to let the Vikings right back in the game (that’s 21 points off of special teams in 7 games) after Woodley’s touchdown.

With 3:21 remaining, Favre drove his team down the field again and it looked like he was about to pull out one of his patiented come from behind wins. A routine dump-off to Chester Taylor looked to bring them closer. But strange things happen when Favre shares the field with the Steelers and it was Keyaron Fox’s time to strike.

Steelers Looking Good Heading Into the Bye Week

The victory over the Vikings gives the Steelers a 5-2 record heading into the bye week.

The Steelers still “fall short of perfection” as Mike Tomlin will surely say. Nor did they turn in a complete enough performance to call it a “statement game.”

But on Sunday the Steelers proved they can defeat a contender.

*The uncanny streak followed me down to Buenos Aires. I was out watching a game of the Argentine American Football Association, and my wife realized that something funky was up with Direct TV Plus — she made sure the game got recorded — hence I have nominated her for a game ball.

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