Bryan Hinkle, the right outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, considers a reporter's statement: A linebacker is a quiet, hardworking man who, when the time comes, will slit your throat with a smile on his face.
Hinkle nods. "I'd have to agree with that," he says.
He looks down the row of lockers at his buddy, third-year man Mike Merriweather, 6'3", 215 pounds, the left outside linebacker, a shy, God-fearing man.
"He's a different person on the field," says Hinkle. "The way it is with most linebackers."
Indeed, on the field Merriweather is the prototype of the new outside backer, the hybrid strong safety/defensive end who has evolved to counter the passing attacks of the '80s. "Quick guys who weigh 195 in high school, put on 20 pounds of muscle in the weight room and are faster than they were before," says outside linebacker coach Jed Hughes.
Above all, these new men are hungry for quarterbacks. Merriweather himself is starved. His 9½ sacks this season for the AFC Central-leading Steelers tie him with the Giants' Lawrence Taylor and New England's Andre Tippett for the most in the NFL by a linebacker, and his skill at getting past a blocker may be unrivaled. "I call it 'blocker acceleration'—getting back to top speed after beating a blocker," says Hughes. "Mike is just uncanny at that."
Merriweather's overall play—he is third on the team in tackles and his pass coverage is so good that he sometimes guards wide receivers man-to-man—is one of the major reasons the 1984 Steelers' defense is approaching Steel Curtain quality. It has allowed the fewest rushing first downs in the AFC (an average of 5.5 per game), has scored six TDs itself, and has not allowed a runner to gain 100 yards against it.
The comparisons with Taylor may be premature—this is only Merriweather's second season as a starter—but they're not unreasonable. As coach Chuck Noll says, "Two people can do the same thing well in different ways. There's not another Lawrence out there, but there's not another Mike Merriweather, either."
Certainly there aren't many off-field personalities like his. He's loud, wild-eyed and gung-ho in games, but in all other circumstances he's placid, doe-eyed and self-effacing. Told that he is terribly modest, Merriweather replies, "Well, thank you. I don't really think I am, but thank you...."
Some of his humility springs from his humble sports background. Raised in Vallejo, Calif., the fifth of John and Alma's six children, he went to nearby University of the Pacific, played on some poor teams, missed much of his junior year with a leg injury and didn't play as well as he'd hoped as a senior. He still can't believe the Steelers took him in the third round of the '82 draft.
"He's not spoiled like so many athletes who have always been stars," says Hughes. "He never complains. He studies so hard, does everything you tell him, and it's just because he wants to play. It's really refreshing, believe me."
Merriweather's personality also was forged in the dreary streets of Vallejo, which lies north of Oakland. "It's really a poor region, and there is a lot of crime," says Merriweather. "My neighborhood wasn't that bad, but there were a lot of people hanging out with nothing to do."
When he was 11, Merriweather was accused of breaking into a school and was arrested and charged with malicious mischief. He was sentenced to six months' probation. "I was being influenced by the wrong kids," he says.
The embarrassment of having to visit a probation officer gave him a new perspective. "I knew I never wanted to get in trouble again," he says. Having earned his degree in history, Merriweather plans to return to college and get his master's in sociology and then start working with disadvantaged kids.
The Steelers view Merriweather as a growth asset. "As good as our linebackers have been here through the years, we've never had anybody with his physical ability," says defensive coordinator Tony Dungy. "He's got 4.55 speed, he's quick, strong and has great ball skills. In five years he could be the best ever."
The Steelers dropped their traditional 4-3 defense three years ago and started to use the 3-4, a boon for a rushing linebacker. "We had the best down linemen for years, so we didn't need to send our linebackers," says Dungy. "With three linemen we can send any one of the backers and get the same four-man rush. It looks like a blitz, and the fans say, 'Hey, I like this,' but it's very safe. And we can go for the best match-up." Which usually means Merriweather against anybody.
Oddly, if Merriweather has a flaw, it is that, as he says, "Contact is not my favorite part of the game." He likes going for interceptions, making big plays while out of position, running around blocks. He's changing, though, learning that certain techniques can't be finessed. "In time he may become less spectacular, but even more effective," says Dungy.
Jack Lambert, Mr. Middle Linebacker, flicks his cigarette into the ashtray screwed to his locker and looks at the remnants of the Steel Curtain. Donnie Shell over there. Dwayne Woodruff and Gary Dunn, if you can count them. Robin Cole. Who else? Nobody, really. Just Lambert, hobbled with a dislocated big left toe these days.
The Steelers had some kind of line-backing crew in the '70s—Lambert, Andy Russell and Jack Ham: 23 career Pro Bowls among them. Lambert isn't about to let any momentary giddiness detract from that. "In my opinion Jack Ham is the best all-around outside linebacker who ever played," he says.
Merriweather, of course, is the man who took over for Ham when he retired after the 1982 season. So what about this new kid?
"He's got a ways to go," Lambert growls. "But he's got potential."
Jack should know.