Big Steeler waiting for scales to tip Linebacker: Levon Kirkland, who has proved he can throw his weight around on third down, bides his time.

October 02, 1997|By Chuck Finder | Chuck Finder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PITTSBURGH -- For Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland, a hero to hefty men everywhere, there is no problem with either the weight or the wait.

He just keeps plunking down his 270 or so pounds on the Steelers' sideline most every third down. Even though he was a Pro Bowl linebacker a year ago, even though he leads the team in tackles (36), sacks (two) and interceptions (two), he gives way to a slowly recovering Greg Lloyd on third-down, passing situations.

The big guy shrugs. No problem.

"I've come to the belief that you can only deal with what you can control," Kirkland said yesterday. "Honestly, what really can I do?

"When you get in there, you do your job well. My main purpose isn't about me. Sure, any player worth his salt wants to play every down. But when I'm in there, I'm worrying about playing well and helping this team."

The linebacker known as "Captain Kirk" is an interesting fellow. He wears wire-rim glasses and the look of a pensive man.

He is the son of a minister who espouses his faith openly. He is a 6-foot-1 plug of a player who matriculated at Clemson a decade ago as a 205-pound outside linebacker.

Both his statistics and his stature mushroomed. He recorded 19 sacks at Clemson while dressed like a square Creamsicle.

He came to the Steelers as a second-round pick in 1992, a project at inside linebacker whom then-rookie coach Bill Cowher admired for his productivity and character.

By the 1993 season, Kirkland had replaced veteran David Little at inside linebacker. By 1995, he had amassed 291 tackles in three seasons and a girth nearly in proportion.

Then, last season, Lloyd, the perennial Pro Bowl linebacker, sustained a season-ending knee injury in the season opener, and Kirkland was told to stay on the field all game, all season long.

Kirkland thrived. He made a team-leading 113 tackles and had four sacks and four interceptions. Two of the interceptions came against Buffalo on a Monday night telecast. One of those was a nifty, over-the-shoulder catch reminiscent of his days at Lamar (S.C.) High, where he was a tight end, linebacker and, uh, kick returner.

Most amazing were Kirkland's forays downfield in pass coverage. In the AFC playoffs against Indianapolis, he was 30 yards from the line of scrimmage when he nimbly picked off a Jim Harbaugh throw intended for tight end Ken Dilger.

A player who smiles when he claims to weigh 270 ("around that"), a guy who can run the 40-yard dash in 5.0 seconds, Captain Kirk boldly goes where few men of such weight have gone before.

"The guy, he knows the game," said Earl Holmes, the second-year pro who lines up next to Kirkland on the Steelers' inside. "That guy has unbelievable instincts. Incredible. He's just there. To me, he's the best inside linebacker in the NFL."

Certainly, the heftiest.

"But he's just a big-boned guy," Holmes said. "He does everything a receiver or a running back can do. People think 'cause he's big like that, he can't run. But we see it. He can run."

So Kirkland isn't sitting out third downs simply because Steelers coaches view him as a run-stuffer only.

No, the reason for his removal is simple: Lloyd.

The fiery outside linebacker used to move inside in the Steelers' third-down, dime defense. He was returned to that position upon his return from 1996 knee injury.

Herein lies a problem. Lloyd hasn't played well. He recorded his first sack -- a half-credit one -- just last Sunday in a 37-24 defeat of the Tennessee Oilers.

He received derisive cheers from Three Rivers Stadium fans when he made his first tackle that day. And he scooped up a second-quarter fumble and ambled toward the Oilers' end zone, only to be caught by fullback Eddie George and promptly stripped of the ball.

This is neither the Lloyd of old nor the Steelers' third-down defense of old. Opponents had been successful on 24 of 42 third-down conversions before Tennessee came along. Opponents had held the Steelers without a sack until the season's third game.

The team long acclaimed for its defense now ranks 28th of 30 NFL teams against the pass and has the second-worst percentage against third-down conversions (50.9).

Kirkland replaced Lloyd in the third-down defense immediately after that fumble recovery. Linebackers coach Mike Archer said it was because Lloyd was winded.

Yet maybe, just maybe, the coaches will return Kirkland to the position where he so dominated last season.

"I wouldn't call it jerking me around," said Kirkland, who salvaged a 14-13 victory over Washington with an end-zone interception that, lucky for the Steelers, came on second-and-goal. "I don't know. Hopefully, we'll see. I've been getting a little more time there recently.

"A couple years back, I wasn't getting any time. So I'm grateful."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers

Site: Memorial Stadium

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Steelers by 2

Steelers at glance

Record: 2-2.

Last game: Defeated Tennessee, 37-24, Sunday.

Last meeting with Ravens: Lost, 31-17, on Dec. 1, 1996.

Who's hot: Pittsburgh's defense, which has not allowed an opponent to rush for more than 90 yards in its past seven games, recorded seven sacks and forced three turnovers in Sunday's win over the Oilers. Quarterback Kordell Stewart came into his own last week, completing 16 of 24 passes for 244 yards and one touchdown and rushing for two touchdowns.

Who's not: The Steelers on the road. Pittsburgh has lost five straight AFC Central road games, including last year's stunning defeat at Memorial Stadium. Kicker Chris Jacke, hampered by a hip injury, has yet to kick this season and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game.

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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