Shamarko Thomas' impact still slow to develop for Steelers
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers inserted a rookie linebacker onto the first-team defense in the first week of spring workouts. Ryan Shazier, the team's first-round draft choice, and not incumbent starter Vince Williams took the reps with the starters.
And while it's completely plausible defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will change his mind between now and the season opener Sept. 7 against the Cleveland Browns, it was impossible to ignore how the youth movement on defense appears to be happening only in select places.
With veteran safety Troy Polamalu absent in the first week of organized team activities (OTAs), it seemed like the perfect opportunity for the coaches to see what they had in second-year safety Shamarko Thomas.
But when the first-team defense lined up, 11-year veteran Will Allen was taking Polamalu's reps. Thomas, a fourth-round pick a year ago, was taking reps with the second team.
Thomas wasn't just any fourth-round pick. The Steelers traded away their 2013 third-round draft choice in order to move up in the fourth round to get him. He was expected to be a big part of their future. And perhaps he will be.
But for now, he continues to learn behind more established veterans.
"I'm not disappointed," Thomas said. "I'm just here to compete. It's coach's decision at the end of the day. I'm just here to work every day, keep my head down and just grind."
Thomas' rookie season was slowed by an ankle injury. He played in defensive sub-packages for the first eight games before injuring his ankle in the ninth game against Buffalo.
While Thomas was out of the lineup the next two games, Allen played well and the coaches decided not to give Thomas his job back after he returned from the injury.
"It definitely slowed me down," Thomas said of the high ankle sprain. "Injuries happen. It's football. My mentality is to come back stronger and that's what I'm doing."
While Thomas worked mostly at strong safety behind Allen in the first week of OTAs, he expects to play both safety positions and the slot cornerback position throughout the spring and training camp later this summer. He was exposed to all three positions as a rookie and he does not have a preference for any of the three long-term, although it is assumed he will eventually replace Polamalu at strong safety.
"Whatever coach wants me to be," Thomas said. "I'm just a football player. I'll play strong, free, nickel, corner, whatever you want me to play. I just want to be great at whatever position they put me at."
While there has been a youth movement in the front seven of the defense, Thomas finds himself the young buck in an experienced secondary. Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor are entering their 12th seasons with the Steelers. Allen has 10 NFL seasons under his belt and third cornerback William Gay seven. Six-year veteran Mike Mitchell was signed in free agency to play free safety.
It is notoriously difficult for young players to play important roles for the Steelers because the defense is complicated. Thomas acknowledged the difficulties of learning on the fly in his first season, but he now feels more comfortable with his assignments.
"I've progressed a lot," Thomas said. "I know the whole defense now. Last year I was all over the place. This year I'm settled in, comfortable and I can just play. It's just like college. When you come in your freshman year you don't know the defense and the next year you settle in, fly around and make plays. That's what I'm doing now. I don't have to think no more. I don't have to second-guess myself. I just fly around and make plays."
Allen has noticed the difference this spring.
"He knows the defense a lot better and he's playing more confident," Allen said. "That's the jump you have to make from Year 1 to Year 2, to graduate to different levels in the defense. He can make the checks and make the calls. He'll be ready to go."
Mitchell has been impressed with Thomas' business-like approach.
"He's a super, super-hard worker," Mitchell said. "That's one of the things I admire about him. You want to teach him stuff. He's a guy you want to teach him what you know because you know he's going to use it to the best of his ability. He kind of reminds me of myself when I was his age. He's a guy you love to be around. His personality is great. He has a good demeanor as far as he approaches to get better every day. It's encouraging."
Eventually, perhaps as early as 2015, Mitchell and Thomas could be the starting safeties. For now, Thomas will continue to learn his trade behind the veterans.
"I learned how to be a pro last year," Thomas said. "Now I'm trying to learn how to develop myself. I do cold tubs, stretching, study the playbook and study film. I watched Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark every day. I saw what they did throughout the day and I'm trying to mimic it."