Pittsburgh Steelers hit midway point of OTA schedule with emerging depth

Linebacker room packed with inside talent; a Hall of Fame Game starter back with new body; and experimentation with drones set to begin.

PITTSBURGH -- The "Law Dawg" -- Lawrence Timmons -- returned to the practice field for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Wednesday, as did his sidekick, Ryan Shazier.

That meant the defensive star of the previous day's OTA workout, L.J. Fort, had to get back in the line -- the long line -- that's making up one of the strongest positions on this year's team: inside linebacker.

Sean Spence is gone, Terence Garvin is gone, but the room remains as packed as it's been in recent years, or since Mike Tomlin began looking for bodies to replace the group led by James Farrior in and around 2012.

"It's probably one of the most competitive rooms in the league," said Fort. "If you're doing well here, you're probably well off."

Timmons is still doing well here. In spite of the belief by some that this contract year might be Timmons' last with the team, "Law Dawg" is again the reigning tackles champ -- by a runaway margin -- and yesterday he showed that he's still the undisputed (and nearly undefeated) champion of the "get off" drill that identifies quick-twitch movement off the ball.

Timmons might be entering his 10th NFL season, but he only turned 30 a couple of weeks ago.

And of course there's Shazier, who, if he stays healthy, has the potential to rise to MVP-type levels.

Behind them is Vince Williams, a signal-caller and run-stuffer who routinely shows in practice that his coverage skills are underrated.

Playing next to Williams, and in place of the departed Spence, has been Fort, a second-year player who's been with five other teams because of his skills on special teams.

Claimed by the Steelers last August after being released by the New England Patriots, Fort spent most of last season on the practice squad until he was activated late and played in the playoffs.

On Tuesday, Fort not only intercepted Ben Roethlisberger and returned it for a touchdown, he ran down Antonio Brown on a short underneath route to show off his quick feet against scary opposition.

"I feel great," Fort said. "One of the biggest things in my second year here is having the coaches believe in me. It's helped my game so much. And I'm in the best shape of my life right now. I know the playbook. I'm just out here having fun now."

Fort said the coaches "like my pass coverage, my breaks. Hopefully I can get them to like my run defense come training camp."

At camp, Fort will compete with free-agent acquisition Steven Johnson and the still-rehabbing draft pick of a few years ago Jordan Zumwalt. There's also seventh-round pick Tyler Matakevich, he of the 493 career college tackles.

"I was in Denver with Stevie Johnson. He's a big, thick linebacker, a run-stopper in the middle," said Fort, who was also asked for his impression of Matakevich.

"You can tell he's got a nose for the ball," Fort said. "You don't win a best-linebacker-of-the-year award without having a nose for the ball. And he's willing to learn. That's the
cool thing about him. You always love a guy who's humble and is looking for advice at every turn."

The cool thing about Fort is that he's a hungry young player who's honestly enthusiastic about the high level of competition for only a few jobs at his position. The 6-0, 232-pounder out of Northern Iowa just shrugs and smiles about it as if to say "bring it on."

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I love it."

HALF THE MAN, TWICE THE PLAYER?

Anyone remember the starting backfield in last year's Hall of Fame Game?

Landry Jones may be the easiest guess at quarterback.

* Will Johnson was the fullback; kinda easy.

* And weighing in at a Bettis-like 255 pounds at halfback was Cameron Stingily. That was the tough one, because he's since been pretty much forgotten.

Stingily gained 18 yards on 11 carries in that game, injured his knee in the second half and was soon working 12 hours a day at a warehouse. His brother, Byron, who was with the Tennessee Titans at the time, eventually spent more time with the Steelers last season than did Cameron.

But that warehouse job inspired Cameron, who lost 30 pounds and came back for another tryout at rookie minicamp. He's advanced to the 90-man roster once again and is hoping for another chance this preseason.

"I feel a whole lot more explosive and in better shape, way better shape," he said.

His approach?

"I'm just really trying to have fun this year," Stingily said. "Having football taken away from me, I had to get a 12 to 12 job. This year I'm not taking anything for granted, trying to make sure I have no MEs (mental errors), and trying to have fun for real."

Stingily trained all winter while working two jobs, re-did his pro day at Northern Illinois and showed enough last month to get a chance. His prescription for weight loss was simple.

"I ate better," he said. "After watching Le'Veon Bell count the calories in sunflower seeds, I was like 'Man, I need to become a professional on and off the field,' so I started eating better."

He and his brother are like two ships passing in the night. Byron, an offensive tackle, spent 10 weeks on the practice squad before leaving as a free agent.

"It would've been a dream come true, playing on the same field with my brother," Cameron said. "I never did that in football. We played baseball and basketball together but never football. That would've been cool. But he's with the Giants so hopefully I can make it and play him in December."

NOTEBOOK

* Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski missed the voluntary workout and left the Wednesday quarterbacking reps to Jones and Dustin Vaughan.

* Bell, of course, remains absent as he continues to rehab his knee. He hasn't been on the field since the first day, when, while running on the side, Bell looked quick, strong and was cutting sharply.

* The Steelers didn't break them out in front of reporters yesterday, but they'll soon begin experimenting with drones to film practices at better angles.

* Rookie safety Sean Davis for the second consecutive day declined an interview request after coming off the field following late extra work.


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