PITTSBURGH – Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is finding it difficult to be patient with Lawrence Timmons.
Tomlin calls the inside linebacker "ridiculously talented," though Timmons has yet to have the breakout season expected before now of the No. 15 pick in the 2007 draft.
Timmons' teammates are convinced the former Florida State star has more speed, power and drive to the football than any player on the Steelers' defense other than safety Troy Polamalu. Still, any discussion about Timmons often begins with what he hasn't done in his three seasons — make the Pro Bowl.
He hasn't yet reached an elite level. He's not yet a complete player. He's not yet ready to take over from James Farrior the job of running the defense.
"It's time," Tomlin said. "Lawrence has been around here long enough."
Long enough to win a Super Bowl. However, it is another 2007 draft pick — second-rounder LaMarr Woodley — who's taken on a bigger role in what was the NFL's top-ranked defense two seasons ago. Woodley led the Steelers with 13½ sacks while making the Pro Bowl last season and had 11½ sacks in 2007. Timmons had seven sacks last season and five as a part-time player in 2008.
Inside linebackers generally don't accumulate sacks in a 3-4 defense like outside linebackers. Regardless, the Steelers believe there's a lot more in the 6-foot-1, 244-pound Timmons that has yet to be seen during games.
They see it in practices and at training camp, but not always on Sundays.
"He has to have a big year in order for us to be successful," linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "And I think he will, because he feels more comfortable. If he stays healthy, then he will develop the way that we have envisioned that he'll develop. And he'll be a factor."
Timmons missed two games last season with a hamstring injury that lingered for most of the first half of the season and hampered his production. He also was bothered by injuries to both ankles.
Farrior, who plays alongside Timmons, also believes there's a lot more to come starting with the Sept. 12 opener against Atlanta. Before then, the Steelers close the preseason with games Sunday at Denver and Sept. 2 against Carolina.
"He's a tremendous athlete and a good kid, but I feel like he's still learning," Farrior said. "We really haven't seen everything he has to give. The injuries, I think, have held him back. They weren't real bad, but they were nagging. I believe he's only scratched the surface so far. There's a lot more we can see from Lawrence."
Timmons hears such talk, and it's difficult to argue he's reached his potential when he himself knows he hasn't.
"I'm definitely growing up now, and I know what to do and how to play the game," Timmons said. "It's time for me to elevate my play to the next level, and I'm working very hard to get there. I want to be the guy to make the sacks and stop the big run plays in the backfield."
Perhaps to motivate Timmons, perhaps to guard against injuries to the 35-year-old Farrior, the Steelers brought back former starting linebacker Larry Foote this season. Foote signed with Detroit a year ago because he knew the Steelers were ready to make Timmons a starter.
The Steelers finished No. 5 overall in defense last year, but they didn't play to the level of the 2008 team that led the league in overall defense, rushing defense and allowed the fewest points in the league while winning the Super Bowl. Farrior had perhaps his worst season since joining the Steelers in 2002.
"When they brought Larry in, I took it like they wanted to make us better. You know that Larry works hard and is a tough guy, and that's what we need," Timmons said.
That and a Timmons who plays to his full ability.
"If he's healthy, he's hard to handle," Butler said.