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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 9� 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.