How is it possible that the player Pro Football Focus ranked the fourth-best inside linebacker in 2012 didn’t make the Pro Bowl?
How does it happen that the linebacker who increased his team’s win probability the most last year according to Advanced NFL Stats didn’t make a single second-team All-NFL squad?
How did the world not notice an inside linebacker who had two critical, game-changing interceptions—Kansas City Chiefs 13 at Pittsburgh Steelers 16, one that set his team up for an overtime win and the Pittsburgh Steelers 14 at Cleveland Browns 20, the other a return for a touchdown that kept his club in a game in which it committed eight turnovers?
Why didn’t more people recognize what a great year Steelers inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons had in 2012?
The six-year veteran arguably had the finest all-around season of any inside linebacker last year. Timmons joined Seattle’s Bobby Wagner as the only two linebackers to receive positive grades from Pro Football Focus’s analysts in each of the three main areas in which that position is evaluated: stopping the run, defending against the pass and rushing the quarterback. As well as Patrick Willis, NaVarro Bowman and Luke Kuechly played, none of those stalwarts could boast such a comprehensively high level of play in 2012.
Timmons was particularly strong as a pass rusher, finishing the season as the fifth most productive inside linebacker at generating pressure and netting the second most sacks of anyone at his position. Though slightly weaker against the run, Timmons’s efficiency at making tackles helped the Steelers linebacking corps rank fourth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed between five and 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.
More importantly, as was demonstrated by the interceptions that won the Chiefs game and nearly won the first Browns game, Timmons was one of the few impact players on a somewhat disappointing Steelers defense.
So with all this in mind, why did everyone overlook Timmons while heaping praise on Willis, Bowman, Kuechly, Kansas City’s Derrick Johnson and, sigh, Ray Lewis? There are several reasons.
For starters, not everyone expected him to have such a good year. Timmons came into the 2012 campaign on the heels of a disappointing 2011 season that may have made many observers forget how good he was in 2009 and 2010. According to Advanced NFL Stats’ analysis, the Steeler ranked a dismal 69th among all linebackers in win probability added over the course of the 2011 campaign. That one down year may have overshadowed his stellar play in the previous two seasons, which saw him finish first and 14th in the same category.
His struggles in 2011 were largely the result of having to play out of position while teammate James Harrison recovered from a facial injury. During the four games in which he was forced to play outside linebacker, Timmons generated only three quarterback pressures, a terrible figure for a player who excels at rushing the passer.
He was also held without a tackle in a game for the first time in his career.
Whatever the reason for the drop-off in his performance, a subpar 2011 may have led many to dismiss Timmons as a once-promising talent who had failed to live up to his early potential. As a result, they may have not been looking for a big 2012 from the Steelers linebacker and weren’t paying attention when he turned one in.
Reputation counts for a lot in how NFL players are viewed. Fans and league talent evaluators tend to give stars with a long track record of success a break when they have bad seasons later in their careers. Likewise, they will sometimes turn on less experienced players when they have an off year, believing that any previous good years were the aberration.
Unfortunately, a good reputation is not something that can be built overnight. Timmons will have to put up more stellar seasons before he is cut the same slack as established stars like Lewis.
The second reason why Timmons’s excellent season went largely unnoticed was the relatively poor play of his team’s defense. After several years of dominant play, the normally stout Pittsburgh defensive unit struggled to stop opponents in 2012.
And in football, poor play from a group tends to taint how its individual members are viewed. Because it is difficult to isolate a particular player’s performance from those of the rest of his teammates, excellent individual play can get lost if the unit fails to produce overall. There is a reason why the Texans’ offensive line and the 49ers' linebacking corps had two Pro Bowlers each.
Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t terrible last year, but it did slip in comparison to years past. Thanks to injuries and age, the Steelers went from allowing the fewest points in 2010 and 2011 to allowing the sixth fewest last year.
In Football Outsiders’ rankings, Pittsburgh had the 13th best defense in 2012, after ranking seventh and first in the two previous years. Not horrible, but bad enough that it wasn't a complete shock that the unit didn’t get a single Pro Bowl nod.
There are obvious exceptions to the tendency to penalize good players on bad teams—for example, a Chiefs team that gave up the eighth most points and the 13th most yards in 2012 somehow sent four defenders to the Pro Bowl—but a lot of players get too much or too little credit for their performance depending on how their team plays. And that was very likely what caused many to overlook Timmons this past year.
The broader context in which Timmons played also worked against the Steelers linebacker in another, less intuitive way. Playing alongside well-known stars like Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley and Harrison, who have 12 Pro Bowls, six All-NFL selections and a Defensive Player of the Year Award among them, may have hurt Timmons’s chances of getting noticed in 2012. For those inclined to downplay Timmons’s contributions to the team’s defense, it might be tempting to argue that his success in 2012 was largely due to the quality of those surrounding him. Star players regularly make life easier for their less-talented colleagues.
Except that that wasn’t the case last year. All of the players mentioned above had a down year. Hampton ranked 78th among defensive tackles in 2012 after having placed 32nd the year before. Keisel slipped from being Pro Football Focus’s fourth-ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2011 to being 21st and just below average this past year. As a result, Pittsburgh’s defensive line struggled to stop the run and generate pressure on the quarterback, ranking 22nd in stopping opposing offenses on 3rd or 4th-and-short and coming in 11th in adjusted sack rate.
The argument that Timmons benefited from playing with elite defenders in 2012 doesn’t hold water, but playing alongside such high-profile teammates certainly obscured the season that the linebacker had. Hampton, Keisel, Woodley and Harrison are, quite simply, bigger names than Timmons and have a longer record of success. As was mentioned above, all those individual accolades carry weight and attract attention from fans and insiders alike. As a result, more ink was spilled about Hampton’s struggles and Harrison’s injuries than Timmons’s strong play.
And that ties in with the final reason why very few took note of what Lawrence Timmons did in 2012. The Steelers linebacker is not an outsized personality who forces the world to acknowledge him.
Unlike Lewis, the Steelers inside linebacker is Lawrence Timmons and the Two-Step Drop, quiet and soft-spoken off the field. Aside from a $21,000 fine incurred for a hit on Mark Sanchez in Week 2, Timmons also has largely avoided the controversies that have dogged his teammate Harrison throughout much of the latter’s career.
Fortunately or unfortunately, in the modern era of the NFL, getting noticed off the field makes people pay attention to what a player does on the field. Those who court publicity, whether good or bad, make announcers mention their names and fans watch them play. And that can change the public’s perception of how they measure up against their peers, especially when those players play less visible positions. And because Timmons doesn’t talk trash like Bart Scott or have a flashy sack dance like many other linebackers, it will take longer for his good play to get noticed.
On the plus side, however, if the Steelers linebacker continues to play at this level, the world will take notice. NFL fans and front office types can be slow to come around, but they’re not stupid. Put up enough high-quality years, and people will take notice. The challenge for Timmons going forward is to show that 2010 and 2012 were no flukes.