PITTSBURGH -- Doug Marrone has no shortages of resources to tap as the first-year Bills coach tries to discern tendencies of the Steelers and get an overall feel for what they like to do.
Heck, even the Bills’ practice squad has Pittsburgh ties as former Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon is on it.
The Steelers have an insider of their own when it comes to Marrone, and that is rookie safety Shamarko Thomas.
Thomas’ four years at Syracuse coincided with Marrone’s stint as the Orange’s head coach
“Coach Marrone, I know his stuff well,” Thomas said.
The two grew up together in a sense, and it is obvious that Marrone still has a soft spot for one of the hardest hitters he said he has ever seen.
Marrone, on a conference call with Pittsburgh reporters earlier this week, recalled how selfless Thomas was last season after the latter injured his shoulder.
Marrone met with Thomas and told the latter he understood if he wanted to have season-ending shoulder surgery so as not to compromise his NFL future.
“He said, ‘Coach, I’m finishing the season and we’re going to a bowl,’ ” Marrone said. “I was like, ‘Whoa.’ ”
The Steelers have had a similar reaction to Thomas and his hard-hitting style.
The fourth-round draft pick has quietly made as much of an impact as any Steelers rookie, including running back Le’Veon Bell.
Thomas plays in the Steelers’ quarter package -- three safeties and three cornerbacks are on the field together -- and he has made 22 tackles. Thomas is also a regular on the special-teams units and has flashed there, too.
“He’s done everything we expected of him as far as running and hitting,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “I think he’s got a really good future in the NFL. I thought he did a good job in the preseason and he’s one of our better players to have in there.”
Size was the biggest question about Thomas prior to the 2013 draft but the 5-foot-9, 217-pounder has impressed his teammates with his physical play.
“He’s nothing but a short linebacker,” free safety Ryan Clark said. “He’s taking on blockers, making strong tackles.”
“Making plays like a linebacker,” strong safety Troy Polamalu added.
Clark and Polamalu have mentored Thomas since he joined the Steelers, and that relationship has accelerated his growth and led to his getting more and more snaps as the season has progressed.
“They take me in like a little brother and it’s blessing because as a rookie you don’t expect it from the veterans,” Thomas said, “but these veterans here show so much love. I sit beside them in the meetings. They teach me everything, stuff I don’t know and things I need to get better on.”
Thomas is clearly the future at safety with Clark unlikely to return after this season and Polamalu also a question mark given the fact that he is due to make more than $8 million in 2014.
Thomas’ past and future collide Sunday when Marrone and the Bills visit Heinz Field – and it will probably be in a literal sense, too, as Thomas' former coach knows well.
“He’s one of the best strikers or hitters I’ve ever been around,” Marrone said.