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fordfixer
01-09-2009, 05:59 PM
Steelers’ Woodley making plays; just not sacks
By Charles Robinson, Yahoo! Sports
2 hours, 0 minutes ago

http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news;_ylt=A ... &type=lgns (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news;_ylt=AqZK8sT6hRR3VHkIi4gwSeE5nYcB?slug=cr-slumpingwoodley010909&prov=yhoo&type=lgns)

PITTSBURGH – The taunts coming from the row of Pittsburgh Steelers wideouts were relentless, and they left linebacker LaMarr Woodley examining his stomach. He pushed it out like a mini Buddha belly, and made a face as some of the more fine-tuned physiques cracked jokes from across the locker room.

“Man, never had abs in my life,” he said, shrugging and rubbing his stomach. “This is all me. It’s always been like this.”

It was a moment of levity from a player who just might be the next great Steelers linebacker – a guy who typically and rightfully has gotten overshadowed by fellow outside linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu this season. While he may not have the skimpy body-fat percentage of former Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, Woodley is packing a similar wallop in only his second season. So much so that, after racking up 11&frac; sacks in his first 11 games (he missed the game against Indianapolis with a calf injury), Woodley’s finish – zero sacks in his final four – has had some hometown media types reaching for the panic button.

“Everybody is talking about ‘the wall’ and the sack slump and all that kind of stuff, but if I go to the film, you can see times where quarterbacks are getting out and my fingers are right there,” Woodley said, brushing his hand near his shoulder. “I’d be worried about it if we weren’t winning. But in those last four games, we won [going 3-1] and I was out there stopping the run and playing pass coverage. Sacks aren’t the only thing I do. That’s not how I define myself. I define myself as a part of a winning defense.”

Still, there’s been plenty room for individual definition, too. Even Harrison admits that the league’s defensive MVP award may not have been possible without Woodley, who often attracted extra attention or flushed quarterbacks in Harrison’s direction this season.

“Definitely, having him has helped,” Harrison said. “I couldn’t have done it without a lot of guys, but when you have two guys who are getting after your quarterback, they can’t stop you both.”

That reality could make Woodley the match that ignites Pittsburgh’s defense against the Chargers in Sunday’s AFC divisional contest. With San Diego likely to scheme additional help in Harrison’s direction – in the form of a chipping running back or shorter drops in the pocket – it should leave Woodley singled up more often, allowing him to use the speed that makes him one of the league’s most promising outside linebackers.

That’s saying nothing of how Woodley will factor in against Chargers running back Darren Sproles, who is expected to start while LaDainian Tomlinson struggles with a groin injury. The more touches Sproles has received, the more he has revealed a cutback mentality. And with the Chargers preferring to run behind their big left side, and toward Harrison, Sproles’ change of direction should put Woodley in line to dramatically impact the running game.

“With [Sproles], there has to be that gap control because he’ll come back on you,” Woodley said. “The problems for [Indianapolis] were when someone got out of position and he came through a hole. Then he gets that speed and he’s 5 yards into the second level before you know it. We want to stop him on that first level.”

Knowing that Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers endured a season-worst 44.4 passer rating in a Nov. 16 loss at Heinz Field – combined with a forecast for cold and snow Sunday – the Steelers expect the factors to translate into more touches for Sproles, who eviscerated Indianapolis last week for 328 all-purpose yards. That performance didn’t appear to show much deviation from San Diego’s use of Tomlinson, leaving the Steelers to think the diminutive back will simply be plugged into the same offense Pittsburgh faced earlier in the season.

“It doesn’t seem like they’ve run anything different when [Sproles] has been in there,” Polamalu said. “It seems like they run the same plays, they have the same expectations for him. When he’s in there, he’s made a lot of huge plays. It’s actually quite amazing. The first time that we played them, our coach made a big point that Sproles has made more big plays than LT has this year, and we had to be very aware of him when he comes in. We don’t see any different challenge when he’s in there.”

Pittsburgh’s response will be typical – an array of defensive looks to confuse Rivers, with Polamalu or one of the middle linebackers acting as a spy on Sproles. The formula worked wonders in their first matchup, including an ample number of confusing zone blitzes which dropped players such as Woodley into coverage while bringing defensive backs off the edge.

“I’m thinking [we saw] 16 [zone blitzes] maybe,” Chargers tackle Marcus McNeill said, recounting the November matchup. “I tell you what: They are a tough team regardless. They really play off their abilities for everybody to play around the field. You’ll see their nose dropping into coverage. You see Harrison dropping into coverage. That allows them to bring a guy like Polamalu off the edge.”

It’s almost certain the Steelers will take advantage of Woodley this time around. He had only three tackles and one pass defended in the first game against the Chargers but is likely to see more one-on-one matchups against right tackle Jeromey Clary – with running backs and tight ends lining up or moving toward Harrison, who had a sack, forced fumble and interception against San Diego in Week 11. It’s worth noting that Woodley had two sacks in his lone playoff game as a rookie last season against Jacksonville. Not to mention that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin refuted the supposed drop-off in his play during the last month of the season.

“[Sacks] are not a measure of performance for an individual – or for a unit, for that matter,” Tomlin said. “A lot is dictated by someone’s ability to create and get sacks, the speed of which the ball comes out being one of them. There are so many things that are outside the control of a player, from that standpoint. What we ask from him and what we ask from everybody is to put the pressure on, and he has provided that.”

But the difference between applying pressure and finishing it – that’s what has made good Steelers defenders into legends. It’s what earned Harrison the honor of defensive MVP and has helped make Polamalu one of the league’s most feared safeties. Woodley can feel how close he is to that elite landscape. He’s certain he’ll get there soon enough – his latest slump be damned.

“If I’m not drawing attention now, something is wrong,” Woodley said. “If you want to sleep on me and think I can’t get to the quarterback, hey, that’s going to be your fault.”