PITTSBURGH (AP) — On a defense in the middle of a generational shift, Lawrence Timmons is the constant.
The faces that mentored the Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker when he broke into the NFL in 2007 are gone. James Farrior and Larry Foote have been replaced by youngsters Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence and Vince Williams.
Now it's Timmons who is among the elder statesmen in the meeting room. It is Timmons who is making the defensive calls. It is Timmons who is serving as 6 feet, 1 inch and 234 pounds of duct tape, going wherever is required to fix whatever problem arises.
And it is Timmons — at last — who has finally filled the one gaping hole on his resume: Pro Bowler. The 28-year-old earned his first invitation to Hawaii on Wednesday, eight seasons into a steadily spectacular career that is no longer being taken for granted.
"From Day 1, LT has always worked hard, and you appreciate it," Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. "And you want someone like that to be rewarded for it. And we were all happy to see Lawrence make it. There are a lot of good linebackers in this league right now, but LT has been one of the center guys for a long time right now. So, it was long overdue."
So much so that Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau long ago developed a stump speech for Timmons, who leads the Steelers (10-5) with a team-high 121 tackles to go with two sacks and an endless stream of quietly sublime plays where his ability to do his job has freed his teammates up to do theirs.
"In my opinion, he can get out on the field with anybody in the National Football League and play well," LeBeau said. "And I think that's what an All-Pro is, and I've said that repeatedly."
Even if Timmons rarely says anything at all. There is a thankless quality that comes with playing inside linebacker for the Steelers, where the outside LBs are the ones who rack up the game-turning sacks and serve as the de facto intimidators, a lineage that stretches from James Harrison to Joey Porter to Greg Lloyd to Jack Ham.
Timmons' main responsibility is to chase down running backs or drop into coverage. Only occasionally does LeBeau allow Timmons to unleash his freakish speed on a dead sprint to the backfield. Yet there's little doubt Timmons could be among the best pass rushers in the league if let loose. He's shown flashes while filling in on the outside at times the last few years because of injury, though it's always back to the inside whenever there are enough healthy bodies around him.
"He just does whatever we ask him to do, even though that inside backer position was probably his best position the year that we were strapped outside with some injuries, and he went and played great outside," LeBeau said.
While Pittsburgh's defense is no longer the force it was a few years ago, the Steelers have improved steadily against the run since early in the season. They are one of six teams to allow fewer than 100 yards rushing on average and are 6-0 in their last six games when opponents fail to reach 100 yards on the ground.
The improvement has as much to do with Timmons' role in helping the young guys around him figure out what they're supposed to be doing as it does his textbook tackling. Consider the next four inside linebackers behind Timmons on the depth chart — Shazier, Williams, Spence and Arthur Moats — began the season with five years of NFL experience combined.
"He's somebody you turn to," said Spence, who is playing regularly for the first time after missing 2012 and 2013 with a devastating knee injury. "He's so productive and he knows what's expected here. You ask him a question and he always knows the answer."
And he knows how to prioritize. In typical fashion, he downplayed the biggest individual achievement of his career. And given a choice, Timmons hopes he's busy playing for a seventh Steelers title instead of hanging out in paradise.
"I'll take the Super Bowl," Timmons said with a smile.
Freelance writer Dale Grdnic in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
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