Can Woodley possibly live up to the hype?
Monday, June 16, 2008 | Posted by Kyle Chrise
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The bar is set pretty high this season for a number of Steelers. You have Ben Roethlisberger trying to prove he's worth that new Scrooge McDuck-like contract. There's Troy Polamalu, who's attempting to overcome his injuries and reclaim his spot as one of the best safeties in football. Left Tackle Marvel Smith is returning after back surgery with plenty to prove. He's anchoring an offensive line that gave up nearly four dozen sacks last year. But one Steeler is facing expectations that are almost impossible to meet, and he's played only 80 career NFL defensive snaps.
Now that Clark Haggans has moved on to Arizona, second-year linebacker LaMarr Woodley is expected to inherit the starting job on the left side. As a rookie, Woodley turned heads with four sacks during the 2007 season and two more in Pittsburgh's playoff loss to Jacksonville. That performance has led many in the media and quite a few in the locker room to believe Woodley will become the next great Steeler LOLB, continuing in the tradition of Brian Hinkle, Kevin Greene and Jason Gildon. Dozens of publications are predicting double-digit sacks from Woodley this season (ROLB James Harrison led the team with 10 in 2007). Some of his teammates, including defensive captain James Farrior, say they're expecting Woodley to reach the quarterback a dozen times this year. At least one report is already naming him one of the league's best at his position. It sounds like the 23-year-old should already buy a ticket to Honolulu (it's not a bad idea considering how fast airfare prices are going up).
A dozen sacks would surely cause Steeler Nation to fill the stands with No. 56 jerseys. But is the preseason hype setting up Woodley to be a letdown in his first season as a starter? The last time Pittsburgh had that kind of firepower was back in 2001, when Gildon had 12 sacks. Remember, though, when Gildon had his Pro Bowl breakout campaign in 2000, it was his seventh year with the team and fifth season as a starter. Woodley is being called on to produce similar numbers as a second-year player, not to mention a first-time starter.
If you ask the team's coaching staff, the key to Woodley's success is going to rely on him sticking to the game plan. Linebackers coach Keith Butler says "everybody talks about playmakers and that kind of stuff, but playmakers make plays because they execute the defense." He says Woodley is still learning how to do that. But the good news is he's a fast learner. Butler says he's probably as far along as any guy who made the transition from defensive lineman in college to linebacker in the NFL.
Woodley is facing one tough task. He could surpass his predecessor, but some would still consider him a letdown. However, it sounds like he has the head to handle it. Woodley certainly has the strength. In fact, the only things that may prevent Woodley from becoming the next Pittsburgh superstar are the expectations he's been given. And that's why Woodley has the biggest challenge of any Steeler this year