PITTSBURGH -- Shamarko Thomas said he got the surprise of his life when he was approached at halftime last week and told he would be an extra defensive back when the Pittsburgh Steelers went to their nickel or dime defenses.
Thomas, the rookie fourth-round pick from Syracuse, had a strong training camp for the Steelers and eventually will be a mainstay in the club's secondary. However, with an injury to cornerback Cortez Allen -- he and Curtis Brown always seem to be injured, don't they? -- Thomas' role will increase.
"I played a lot on special teams, but I couldn't believe it when they told me I would go in there on defense,'' Thomas said. "I was ready to go in, prepared, but I was really surprised.''
Will Gay replaced Allen at the cornerback spot opposite Ike Taylor in the base defense, but instead of Curtis Brown playing more in the nickel and dime Thomas and safety Robert Golden got extensive playing time. That should continue this week, as Allen won't play Monday - there was improvement as the week went on, but not enough for him to play against the Bengals.
"(Shamarko) did fine, but he better get used to it, because you never know what's going to unfold in a game,'' Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "And you're only one snap away, not only from playing nickel, but strong safety all the time.
"So, we tell our players all the time that you better practice as if you're in the game, because a lot of these games it's going to happen and you're going to have to be a factor. It just happened early for him.
"He probably was a little excited, but I thought he played very well in there,'' LeBeau added. "He's a good football player, and he's still learning. But I'm glad we drafted him, and he's on our defense.''
Thomas has come a long way since training camp. Just ask Troy Polamalu.
"He's going to be a really good player,'' Polamalu said. "He's a good player now, and he's still learning. But he's a fast learner, I think. And I expect him to make some big plays for us with the more playing time that he gets.''
While Thomas has displayed solid coverage skills, he developed a reputation as a strong blitzer at Syracuse University.
"I think he's a good blitzer,'' LeBeau said. "He's a good tackler, and he's got good quickness. And he's very compact and solid, with some acceleration, which makes you a good tackler.
"And he's a willing tackler, so those kind of guys generally make good blitzers. But he just needs experience. You can't expect him to be a veteran safety after just one game.''
But with a limited amount of playmakers on either side of the ball, the Steelers need more guys like Thomas to be in the lineup on a regular basis.
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