By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, once the most productive sack tandem in the NFL, have fallen on hard times.
The duo that terrorized opposing quarterbacks from opposite sides of the Steelers' 3-4 defense is hoping to regain some of the power and might that produced 89 1/2 sacks the past four seasons.
And that total might have been higher if the two outside linebackers had not missed a total of 10 games in 2011.
But injuries have conspired to slow their production, beginning last season and carrying through to this year. The result is that Harrison and Woodley have combined for four sacks -- three by Woodley-- heading into the game Monday night against the Kansas City Chiefs.
"We still feel like they're the best in the business," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "When those two guys are in there, you know you have two Pro Bowl-type players that are known around the league for getting after quarterbacks and standing up against the run."
And the Steelers still believe the sacks will come from their bookend linebackers.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau certainly believes so. So does Harrison, even though he said his troublesome knee injury never will be 100 percent this season.
"Not to make excuses, but we had a lot of guys who hadn't played any offseason football at all -- no coaching sessions, no training camp," LeBeau said. "And those guys are starting to get their football conditioning going and their football muscles going, and that's definitely a factor in our improvement. LaMarr and James Harrison are two big factors in that equation."
The Steelers had 35 sacks last season, their fewest since 1990, and the main reason was because Woodley missed six games because of a severe hamstring injury and Harrison missed four -- three with a fractured orbital bone and another because of a suspension.
This year, with 14 sacks after eight games, they are on pace to have fewer. And that's because Woodley missed one game with a different hamstring injury and Harrison has been slow to come around after missing all of training camp and the first three games of the regular season with a knee injury that has bothered him since the offseason.
But Harrison said he is starting to feel better and be in better football shape after playing the past five games at outside right linebacker. Nonetheless, his knee, which required arthroscopic surgery in training camp, has kept him from performing at his accustomed level.
"I'd say it's getting a lot closer to what would be fully conditioned, but it's obviously not going to be all the way there for the simple fact my knee isn't going to be all the way there till probably the end of the season," Harrison said. "I've accepted that. Until you're able to go and rehab things correctly and properly, you're not going to be able to get back to 100 percent.
"I want to be able to go out there and run 100 yards every play for 15 plays straight. Obviously, that isn't the case right now. I'm good. It's not anything that's affecting my level of play. If anything, the knee affects that more than anything else."
Harrison said he can't bend his knee as much as he would like, restricting his ability to get underneath offensive tackles when he uses leverage to rush the quarterback. Harrison has used that technique to compile 45 1/2 sacks the past four seasons.
"I don't have the same strength in it as I do the other leg," Harrison said.
"It took a year, year-and-a-half-plus to get where I had to have surgery. It's not something that's going to come back over the course of a few weeks."
And, yet, despite that, the Steelers have managed to rise to No. 1 in the league in total defense and pass defense.
"We try to adjust our defense to what were seeing and the guys we got out there sometimes," LeBeau said. "We're not going to sit there if we're having trouble. We're going to try a different combination of defenses. Nothing radical or anything, but the players have to deliver, and they've done that."
Don't forget Adams' role
Rookie Mike Adams, the team's No. 2 draft choice, has started the past three games at right tackle, and it might be more than just coincidence the running game has come to life the past three games.
While everyone has noticed the aggression and improved play of left guard Willie Colon, the reality is that the Steelers are primarily a right-handed running team that runs most of its plays to Adams' side.
Granted, Adams has struggled in pass protection -- he gave up two more sacks in the victory last week against the New york Giants -- but he has been very impressive in run-blocking, using his long arms and leverage to move defensive lineman and linebackers off the line of scrimmage.
"He knows how to extend his arms and keep his feet moving," left tackle Max Starks said.
"If you can get into position with your hands and keep moving your feet, you're always going to be successful."
Adams has played so well that Marcus Gilbert, who had a nasty ankle injury in Week 5 in Tennessee, might not get his job back. Gilbert had the tendon that protects the muscle tear away from the bone and needed to see an ankle specialist in Charlotte, N.C.
He has resumed practicing lightly this week with the hope he can return next week for the game against the Baltimore Ravens