By Chris Adamski
LATROBE — Last season, the Steelers ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total defense and No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense.
Toss in a No. 1 ranking in pass defense, too, if you’re so inclined. Pretty good, right?
Many of the principles who are part of that unit take a markedly different view.
“I just think overall we played bad as a defense, ” linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. “All the way up front and in the back.”
An NFL-worst 15 turnovers forced, a middle-of-the-pack 35 sacks and, most tellingly, a poor performance during a playoff loss in Denver leaves a sour taste that a shiny ranking can’t overcome.
Still, Woodley is heartened by the fact Pittsburgh’s defense was hampered by injury last season.
“I think having everybody back this year will go a long way,” he said.
A reasonable position to take… but will everyone really be back this year?
Woodley and James Harrison, when healthy, are arguably the NFL’s top outside linebacker duo. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, that was only for the first four games of last season.
Harrison was limited by a balky back all year, and an eye injury kept him out completely for four games through the middle of the season. He also was suspended for the Dec. 19 game at San Francisco.
Woodley’s left hamstring was an issue that never went away once the calendar turned to November. It became a running joke in the Steelers locker room that Woodley was close to playing — only to be listed as “out” come the weekend. Sure, he dressed for the Dec. 4 game against Cincinnati and the 49ers game — and for the wild-card playoff loss — but he admitted on Sunday that he was “rushing back” and “not ready.”
“It’s always frustrating because with a hamstring injury, it needs time to heal,” Woodley said, “and throughout the season you’re always kind of rushing trying to get back week-to-week, and then you end up setting yourself back more.”
Woodley insists he’s healthy now, but he also concedes that he couldn’t feel the hamstring injury last season throughout the week and in practice until the game. And even if he feels well now, last season proved that a hamstring is only a tweak away from going awry once more.
Harrison’s health is even more tenuous. He’s 34, and back issues sometimes tend to never go away (ask Mario Lemieux). And his back isn’t even the reason why Harrison is on the PUP list early in training camp — a knee injury is.
“Its just day by day; we’ll see how it goes and hopefully in a little while I’ll be able to get back out there,” Harrison said late last week.
“Last year at this time I was six months removed from two back surgeries, so I would think I’m better off now.”
Harrison is under contract through next season. But it’s not a stretch to say that his sizable 2013 cap hit (when he will be 35) will be a casualty if he does not have a big season. That starts with staying healthy — and Harrison has not even been onto the practice field yet through minicamp and training camp.
That continues a trend in which neither of the Steelers elite pass-rushing linebackers has been healthy at the same time for almost a full calendar year.
“Injuries are just something that happened throughout the season, and unfortunately we both got hurt last year and didn’t really have an opportunity to play together,” Woodley said. “This year we get to start fresh and everything’s new again and we can come out here and play football together.”
The Steelers hope so.
NOTES — WR Emmanuel Sanders did not take part in the afternoon practice Friday. The workout was held on the auxiliary artificial turf fiend because the heavy rains of the past week have left the main practice field soggy. Coach Mike Tomlin said the move was a precaution because of Sanders’ injury history. Sanders was hampered by a foot injury for much of last season. … CB Keenan Lewis sustained a sprained shoulder and was forced to leave practice early. Tomlin said he would be evaluated to determine the severity of the injury. … Curtis Brown took Lewis’ place, but that might not be an indication Brown is ahead of Cortez Allen on the depth chart. Allen remained in the nickel spot. … LT Trai Essex and RG David DeCastro also did not finish practice because of ankle ailments that are not considered serious. Each figures to return for the team’s next workout Tuesday. Monday is a day off. … RB Isaac Redman briefly left practice, looking woozy. … Rookie NT Alameda Ta’amu impressed for the second consecutive day in pass-rushing drills, consistently pushing backup C Doug Legursky into the backfield. … For the second consecutive day, rookie OL Kelvin Beachum got into a scrum with a defensive player during a drill.