Linebacker Woodley hopes to make a comeback as pass rusher

By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
August 1, 2013

You do not buy a vacuum cleaner to do an air conditioner's job. You do not have a Harley haul a boat. You cannot get a Doberman to be a lap dog.

And you should not often ask Steelers outside left linebacker LaMarr Woodley to drop into pass coverage.

Woodley, listed as 6 feet 2, 265 pounds, is built to stop the run, pressure the quarterback, sack the quarterback, obliterate the quarterback. He has done a nice job of it, too, rated No. 1 in 2009 by Pro Football Focus (PFF) doing just that.

He had quarterbacks quivering through the first half of 2011 with nine sacks in the first eight games. Since then, he's had four sacks in the past 1 1/2 seasons.

What happened to the quarterback meat grinder that was LaMarr Woodley? Injuries, big time, and something else Woodley mentioned Wednesday, something that helped conspire to keep him off the quarterback -- the Steelers defense.

"I felt I dropped back a lot last year in coverage," Woodley stated.

What? Woodley covering tight ends running pass routes instead of bringing the heat on the guy trying to throw them the ball?

"That's part of this scheme," Woodley shrugged.

True enough, Dick LeBeau long ago came up with the idea of the zone-blitz defense, and it has served the Steelers well. Part of the scheme is masking who might rush the passer vs. who might drop into zone pass coverage. That way, offenses can not load up against -- or play away from -- a defense's best pass rusher.

Kevin Greene, who has more official sacks than any linebacker in NFL history, bragged about his ability to drop into pass coverage with the Steelers. James Harrison was in pass coverage when he picked off Kurt Warner and ran 100 yards for a touchdown in the Super Bowl XLIII.

Harrison was rated by PFF as the most effective pass rusher in the NFL over the past five years. Woodley was rated No. 7 and would have been higher if it weren't for his ineffectiveness for one reason or another the past 1 1/2 years.

He went through terrible hamstring problems that virtually wiped out the second half of 2011 after that hot start. Last season, injuries to his hamstring and a high ankle sprain limited him. He said he feels "great" now after a different workout routine with a different trainer in the Arizona heat and is ready to resume his role as a premier pass rusher.

And don't the Steelers need one.

They lost Harrison when the sides could not agree on a reduced salary, and now he's with the rival Cincinnati Bengals. Their sack total plummeted from 48 in 2010 to 35 in 2011 and 37 in 2012, and with it some of the fewest turnovers totals on defense in their history.

Maybe it's time for them to play the zone blitz most everywhere else but let the left outside linebacker do his thing and sic him on the quarterback.

"I'd definitely like to get back to doing more rushing than dropping back in coverage because my game is predicated on sacks," Woodley said, "and this defense is predicated on getting to the quarterback, making quarterbacks make bad decisions and allowing our secondary to make plays."

That secondary made precisely six interceptions in 2012. Quarterbacks had more time to avoid forcing passes that might be picked off.

"Definitely here outside linebackers don't do what outside linebackers [playing in 3-4 defenses] do across the league," Woodley said. "I'm asked to drop more. Other linebackers across the league rush a little more than I do. When my number's called, I just have to make it count and get home."

PFF ranked him tied for 81st among pass rushers in 2012 in a statistic the respected site called "adjusted sacks." Miami's Cameron Wake and Denver's Von Miller tied at the top at 14.19. Woodley was at 4.29.

He missed only three games with his injuries, but missed portions of others including three-fourths of a Nov. 25 game against Cleveland when he left with his ankle injury in the first quarter.

"The ankle just took time to heal. Through the season when you have a high ankle sprain, you're struggling each and every day. In practice trying to push to get back, sometimes you set yourself back in practice and don't even know and you try to go out there in a game and you're not 100 percent."

He says he is that now and has shown it through the early days of training camp. He's anxious to see what's happening on the other side of the defense, where Jason Worilds and rookie Jarvis Jones are trying to replace Harrison. He hopes at least one can pick up the slack.

"It's definitely important. Here in Pittsburgh, the outside linebackers play off one another. When there's always two [good] outside linebackers here, they both had a lot of sacks, and they both helped the team out because you can't focus on just one guy, you have to focus on both guys."

That is, unless the opponent is afforded the luxury of seeing those pass rushers drop into pass coverage.

"They pay me to rush," Woodley proclaimed. "Hopefully, I'll be rushing and not covering receivers and tight ends down the field."