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Is Ben Heeney too undersized to be in middle of Raiders defense?

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- There’s a reason Matt Millen, who played 12 seasons in the middle of some of the most physical defenses in NFL history, said it looked as though Oakland Raiders middle linebacker Ben Heeney needed some “bricks” in his pants.

Listed generously at 6-feet, 231 pounds, Heeney looks like anything but the prototypical thumper at middle linebacker.

And Millen, who played two inches taller and 20 pounds heavier while winning four Super Bowl rings from 1980 through 1991, made the observation while broadcasting the Raiders’ exhibition loss at the Green Bay Packers last week.

Yes, on a play on which Heeney was pushed back while attempting to pursue the ball carrier.

Of course, Heeney has heard this talk about him being too small to play in the middle of a defense, even as the Raiders rewarded him with the green dot helmet as the D’s play caller.

“It’s just the position I play,” he said recently. “Just got to do the best I can.”

And about being chosen to wear the green dot?

“I’ve been doing that since college,” Heeney said. “The keys are really just getting the call in my ear and just repeating what coach calls to everybody else.

“It’s not too hard; just got to be able to listen and be able to speak.”

Heeney laughed.

But this much is no laughing matter. Because while Heeney might not be that physically intimidating force in the middle of what Oakland calls a 4-3 scheme (the Raiders are built more like a 3-4 outfit and flashed a lot of 5-2 alignments in training camp), he might not need to be for such a versatile unit.

Not when Heeney has the likes of All-Pro Khalil Mack on one side, Bruce Irvin on the other and veterans like cornerback Sean Smith and free safety Reggie Nelson behind him.

“We’ve got playmakers all over the field, so it’s definitely fun to be able to give the plays to those guys and see what they can do with them,” Heeney said.

“It’s amazing. Being in the middle, just having all these different pieces around me, definitely gives me confidence and makes me feel like I can feel fast.”

Drafted out of Kansas in the fifth round in 2015, Heeney learned from Curtis Lofton as a rookie last season. Heeney is now passing on those lessons to rookie Cory James, who was selected in the sixth round this spring from Colorado State.

"Ben Heeney is a dog," Irvin said. "Like you said, he's not the biggest guy, but he plays bigger than what he is. The guy leaves it out there for me.

"He's a team guy. That's the biggest thing, having a bunch of team guys who are willing to leave it out there for each other. I can already tell Ben is one of those guys."

And for the first time in recent memory, Heeney is dealing with the same defensive scheme for the second consecutive year. Even if the defense has so many new faces after the retirements of free safety Charles Woodson and defensive end Justin Tuck.

“We lost some good players, but I think we added some back and got some very good players,” Heeney said. “It’s hard to compare the two, but I think we definitely have a very fast defense.”

Besides, bricks in the pants would slow you down, right?