By Mike Bires
One reason why the Steelers can be dangerous if they get into the playoffs _ and that’s still a big if _ is the possibility of Troy Polamalu lining up again at strong safety. But another reason is LaMarr Woodley’s continued rise toward stardom.
Right outside linebacker James Harrison, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, received nationwide claim the past two seasons for the havoc he’s wreaked on opposing defenses. But last year in the playoffs, Woodley, the Steelers’ left outside ‘backer, had a six-to-one edge over Harrison in sacks.
“He’s been that kind of guy since he’s been here,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Woodley. “His rookie year, he came on late in the year. Late last year, he was playing good football. He’s a guy that’s on the rise at the appropriate time and that’s what makes him a good player.”
Woodley, the Steelers’ second-round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, has been coming on strong as the ’09 season winds to a close.
In each of the Steelers’ last seven games, he’s recorded at least a half sack.
This past Sunday as the Steelers (8-7) kept their slim playoff hopes alive by edging the hated Baltimore Ravens, 23-20, Woodley had one of the best games of his young career.
In fact, Woodley upstaged Harrison, who’s owned the Ravens in their previous two visits to Heinz Field during the regular season. In those two games (both Pittsburgh wins), Harrison was a one-man wrecking crew with six sacks, four forced fumbles, a fumble receovery and an interception.
But this year, it was Woodley who stole the show.
And according to Woodley, his performance had nothing to do with Harrison reporting for duty with a strained biceps that had his playing status listed as questionable right up until kickoff.
“I’m always looking to be the guy,” said Woodley, a former University of Michigan star who primarily played defensive end in college.
Woodley sure was the guy as the Steelers helped jumble the crazy AFC playoff picture.
That was especially true in the fourth quarter. He was a beast as he spearheaded the defense’s best performance since a 28-10 win in Denver on Nov. 9.
In the first quarter against the mistake-prone Ravens (8-7), James Farrior intercepted a pass, the Steelers’ first pick since Denver. But it was Woodley who created the opportunity by charging past tackle Oniel Cousins and drilling Joe Flacco as he threw.
Then late in the fourth quarter, when the Steeler defense has self-destructed so often this year, Woodley took control. On Baltimore’s last possession when it threatened to take the lead, it was Woodley who closed the deal.
On third-and-7 from the Steelers’ 35-yard line with 2:39 left to play, Woodley blew by Cousins and sacked Flacco.
On fourth-and-10, Woodley blew by Cousins again, sacking Flacco again with a tackle that separated the ball from the fallen quarterback’s grasp. As the ball floated in the air, rookie defensive end Ziggy Hood grabbed it.
Woodley saved the day.
And by doing so, Woodley took over the team’s sack lead with 11.5.
Harrison, who fought the pain of his biceps injury and well against the Ravens, didn’t have a sack for a fifth straight game and is still stuck on 10.
“LaMarr did a great job,” Harrison said. “He did what we expected him to do.”
“As a football player, you have to set your goals high,” Woodley said.
At training camp in each of the past two summers, Woodley has refused to announce his goals publicly. He wouldn’t even venture to project how many sacks he’d get.
As a rookie when he backed up Clark Haggans, Woodley had 4.0 sacks during the regular season. That’s the same number of sacks Haggans had. Then in a playoff loss to Jacksonville, Woodley posted two sacks while Haggans had none.
Woodley’s presence allowed the Steelers to sever ties with Haggans, who’s now playing for the Arizona Cardinals.
Last year in his first season as a starter, Woodley was second on the team with 11.5 sacks. He then had six more in the playoffs, including one to close out the Super Bowl win over Arizona.
To be sure, Woodley is also tough against the run. But as the NFL continues to be a pass-first league, defenses need relentless pass rushers.
“I’ve been getting after the quarterback ever since I’ve been playing football,” Woodley said. “That’s what I do. I hit quarterbacks.”
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