By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Despite expressing indifference, LaMarr Woodley had to hear the rumblings about him last season, that he was out of shape, way too heavy and hurting the Pittsburgh Steelers defense by contributing a limited pass rush.
The negative attention was justified, as Woodley’s production dropped considerably to just 27 solo tackles and four sacks in 13 games last season. He actually had four in the past 15 games going back to mid-way through the 2011 campaign when he suffered a hamstring injury, missed six full games and parts of other contests.
That attention intensified during the offseason, as an unknown teammate — speaking anonymously to a local columnist in mid-February — said that Woodley “was awful. He tells us he works out, but we didn’t see it. He wasn’t in shape. That has to be a reason why he was always hurt.”
Woodley spoke publicly for the first time during the Steelers OTAs this week, but noted that he was still unaware about which teammate called him out.
“Actually, I think the anonymous person was next to me in the locker room, but actually that’s my locker next to me. I never had an opportunity to talk to them. The anonymous person is right next to me, my locker. It’s my locker, so there is no one there. I don’t know who said it. (But) a player like myself, I don’t listen to that kind of stuff. When that came up, it didn’t bother me one bit.
“I’m the type of person who laughs at stuff like that, any kind of negative things people say. As somebody that’s been doing this for so long, coming up in Little League, you’re going to hear positive and negative stuff. It just comes with the territory. You deal with it, and you continue to march on with your day.”
Woodley had nine sacks in 10 games in 2011, but injuries to both hamstrings forced him out of the lineup and made him ineffective more often than not during the second half of the season. In 2012, the hamstrings were better, but another player fell on his ankle. The ensuing high-ankle sprain was the injury that held him back last season.
“Everybody thought that last year I was out due to hamstring injuries, but it wasn’t that,” Woodley said. “It was due to a high ankle sprain in the Cleveland Browns game early in the first quarter when somebody fell on my ankle. Anybody who plays sports or has ever had a high-ankle sprain knows that it takes time to heal. (But) it was a disappointing season all the way around.
“Not making the playoffs, that ticks me off. It’s not necessarily what people are saying about me. It’s about the performance last year of our team and not going to the playoffs and not going to play in the Super Bowl at the end of the year. My performance definitely went down due to the high ankle sprain. When you have that, it affects everything that you do.
“We’re asked to drop back in coverage, we’re asked to rush a lot, and a lot of things that you can’t do without turning on that ankle,” Woodley added. “You try to fight through injuries. When you’re out there trying to fight through injuries people are still going to say, ‘Woodley is not being productive.’ (But) I was just out there playing for my team, trying to do the best that I could do.”
With Woodley healthy and clearly in much better shape than he’s been in more than a year, his best certainly should make an impact for the Steelers defense.
In A Zone
With Jack Bicknell Jr. brought in to replace departed Sean Kugler as the offensive line coach, the Steelers have revamped their blocking technique. Instead of pounding the ball inside with the running game, the Steelers are concentrating on an outside zone blocking scheme.
This is what Bicknell used successfully for the Kansas City Chiefs with Jamaal Charles, and it also has worked out pretty well for the Houston Texans with Arian Foster. The Steelers are hopeful that with a quicker offensive line this season — Marcus Gilbert at left tackle, Ramon Foster at left guard, Maurkice Pouncey at center, David DeCastro at right guard and Mike Adams at right tackle — running backs Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Le’Veon Bell will combine for a powerful ground attack.
“Sean was a great coach, and we learned a lot from him,” Gilbert said. “But getting Coach Bicknell in here, he has experience with the outside zone (blocking). They made a lot of hay last year in Kansas City with their rushing, so we’re all pretty excited about that. Finishing 26th in the league (in rushing) last year, that just wasn’t acceptable for the Steelers.
“But it’ll be a good change-up for our offensive line to throw some new things at the defense. He also brings a sense of urgency. He’s always full of energy, and I really like that about him. With some of the plays we had before, combined with the zone-blocking scheme this year, I think we can hit a defense with a lot of different looks.
“That way, they won’t be able to just pack the box against us,” Gilbert added. “The outside zone stuff, especially with the backs that we have and the O-linemen that we have, that should really help us out. The outside zone puts a lot of stress on a defense, (and) with the backs that we have and the line that we have I think we can be the best in the league.”
With an offensive line that has been in flux the past few seasons, that would be quite a departure for the Steelers.