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Columnist Ron Cook: A lot like Lambert

Kirkland continues Steelers' tradition of fearsome linebackers

Sunday, October 04, 1998

It seemed like a good time to make the call to Kittanning. Levon Kirkland had just been named the AFC defensive player of the week after making plays all over the field against the Seattle Seahawks. Why not call the greatest middle linebacker in Steelers history and see what he thought about Kirkland maintaining the marvelous tradition he started more than two decades ago?

 
 

"To tell you the truth," Jack Lambert said, "I haven't had the chance to see any games this season. I'm so busy with the kids. If we're not going to a soccer game, we're going to choir practice or to church ..."

Lambert, a devoted father of four, doesn't know what he's missing.

His name came up in the Steelers' locker room after their 13-10 win against the Seahawks last Sunday. Earl Holmes opined how ol' No. 58 would have loved the hitting that went on. Certainly, Lambert would have enjoyed watching Kirkland.

In the second half alone, Kirkland forced a Mack Strong fumble to set up the Steelers' final three points. He made a spectacular play to tackle Ricky Watters for a 3-yard loss on a screen pass just when it appeared the Seahawks were driving for a tying or winning score. And he sacked Warren Moon in the final two minutes to all but assure the victory.

"He played unbelievable. Super. Fantastic," Steelers defensive coordinator Jim Haslett gushed.

It's no wonder the AFC honored Kirkland.

But the greatest honor for any Steelers linebacker is to have his name mentioned in the same sentence with Lambert's.

Kirkland deserves it.

"In one sense, they're such different players," said Hall of Famer Jack Ham, a Lambert teammate and, in his role as an NFL broadcaster, a Kirkland observer.

Lambert was a 220-pounder who played with a ferocity that was unique even in the violent NFL. Kirkland is a 280-pounder - "How much does he weigh?" Ham asked, incredulously. "That's incredible. That's bigger than Joe Greene." - who can deliver monster hits, yet cover running backs 30 yards down the field.

"What makes them comparable," Ham said, "is how smart they are. At 220 pounds, Lambert could have gotten himself killed if he wasn't in the right position or didn't have the right leverage or didn't get in front of the blockers on the screen pass the way Kirkland did against Seattle. I don't think Jack ever got the credit for being as smart as he was. Kirkland is the same way. He's always putting himself in position to make plays.

"Football games in the NFL are won or lost because of two or three mental mistakes. Lambert never made them. Neither does Kirkland."

Lambert's reward was enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

Kirkland could be headed there.

He has been the game's best inside linebacker since Super Bowl XXX after the '95 season when he had eight tackles and a sack against the Dallas Cowboys and helped limit Emmitt Smith to 49 rushing yards. The Steelers, who don't part easily with big contracts, gladly made Kirkland the NFL's highest-paid linebacker with a four-year extension after last season that will pay him $25.3 million through 2002.

This year, Kirkland is the game's best defensive player, period. Let 'em argue that point in Kansas City where Derrick Thomas has seven sacks. Thomas, obviously, is a better pass rusher, but he doesn't have Kirkland's versatility. No one in the NFL does. Only Carnell Lake is close.

At least a handful of Denver Broncos called Kirkland "a freak" before the AFC championship game last season. It was their highest compliment. "A guy that big shouldn't be allowed to be that quick," tight end Shannon Sharpe grumbled.

Wouldn't you know Kirkland covered Sharpe on the Broncos' second play? He intercepted John Elway's pass. Later in the game, he would get 11 tackles and a sack.

A freak, indeed.

Lambert was a much better cover linebacker, although Kirkland does have 11 career interceptions, an astonishing total for a man his size. But Kirkland might hit harder. Again, that's a reflection of that extra 60 pounds.

"Jack was a grabber who would throw you down," Haslett said. "Levon is more of a thumper."

Ask Baltimore Ravens running back Priest Holmes how hard Kirkland hits. Kirkland knocked him into the next week when he tried to catch a pass over the middle in the opener Sept. 6.

The only thing missing from Kirkland's game is Lambert's snarl. He doesn't have that same mean streak. Maybe it's because he still has his front teeth. Or maybe it's because he still lives at home with his parents in Lamar, S.C., during the off-season. Whatever, he might never be able to generate fear in an opponent the way Lambert or even Greg Lloyd did.

Hall of Fame voters love a little violence in their linebackers. They also love durability and longevity. It only takes one play to ruin a career. Ask Lloyd, who was headed to the Hall of Fame when he tore up his knee in Jacksonville in '96.

Kirkland has been extraordinarily lucky. He didn't miss a game in college at Clemson and hasn't missed one - knock on wood, of course - in his six-plus seasons with the Steelers. His chances of staying healthy will be enhanced if he watches his weight. The older he gets, the harder he'll have to fight to stay trim. You would hate to see a guy with his talent eat himself out of the league.

"I don't think that will be a problem," Haslett said. "Levon wants to be the best he can be. He wants to be his best on every play."

There's an attitude Lambert can appreciate.

He'll probably get his first look at Kirkland this season when the Steelers play in Kansas City Oct. 26. That's a Monday night game. The Lambert kids will be in bed. There should be no reason their old man can't sit back in his Kittanning home with his favorite beverage and enjoy the show.

Who knows? Lambert might even like watching Kirkland as much as we liked watching him.



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