Let's examine two telling plays turned in by two young Steelers during the 16-10 preseason win Friday over the Philadelphia Eagles.
First was a play made by second-year linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who showed off his speed in closing on a running back who took a short pass out in the flat.
Last week, 12,000 fans at Latrobe Memorial Stadium were treated to the suddenness and explosiveness of Timmons in the backs-on-backers blitz pickup drill. Willie Parker deserved kudos for at least getting in Timmons' way and slowing him down. The rest, including busted-up rookie tight end Dezmond Sherrod, were simply run over.
A week later, Timmons, playing inside linebacker, showed that suddenness in holding a short pass to Correll Buckhalter in the open flat to a 3-yard gain. Timmons explained the burst the same way he did Friday night at the high school stadium: with a shrug of the shoulders.
"I was basically sitting in zone and came and made the play. That was all," he said.
Timmons made a few more plays. He made the tackle on the Steelers' first kickoff, and he covered wide receiver Jason Avant in the back of the end zone to prevent a touchdown. Timmons also stuffed Buckhalter on a run up the middle, showing he'll stick his head in there at the point of attack. It's the 22-year-old's final question mark as he tries to wrest the mack linebacker job from veteran Larry Foote. Of course, Timmons doesn't want to talk about that right now.
"We're a team, a band of brothers," he said. "I'm just trying to do anything to make this defense better in any way."
The other telling play Friday night involved rookie quarterback Dennis Dixon. Rushed into the game a quarter ahead of schedule because of an injury to Charlie Batch, Dixon looked like anything but a rookie in his preseason opener. He completed 6 of 9 passes for 30 yards and had a 49-yarder called back because someone held a defensive tackle who wouldn't have touched the elusive Dixon anyway.
The elusive Dixon – that's the important phrase, and the play which showed he still has all of his mobility, in spite of tearing an ACL only nine months ago, occurred in the third quarter with the Steelers facing 3rd-and-20 from their own 10.
Rookie left tackle Tony Hills was beaten badly by former Eagles first-round draft pick Jerome McDougle, and McDougle closed in on Dixon, who was looking to pass from the end zone. But Dixon spun naturally to his right and circled back to his left. He evaded McDougle like a confident pro and re-set himself. He threw back right, a bit high and incomplete, but the rookie had averted a safety and showed that his knee is fine.
"I used my God-given talent to get out of the pocket and try to make a play," he said, much like Timmons with a what's-the-big-deal look. And then he realized his knee, his mobility, was back.
"I was totally healthy," he said with a big smile. "I got hit a little bit today, too. That was my true challenge and I think I passed."
Both of the young players – Dixon and Timmons – passed their tests. It only took one play to tell.