Woodley's future with Steelers in doubt after latest injury

The Steelers now have made two significant moves with linebacker LaMarr Woodley. The next one could be their last.

They placed Woodley on injured reserve Tuesday with his second calf injury since Nov. 10, ending his season. This comes two games after the strong play of Jason Worilds prompted them to move Woodley to a new position, to the other side of their defense at right outside linebacker.

Steelers management will confront a decision after their season ends: whether to sign Worilds and release Woodley or watch yet another good, young player flee in free agency and stand pat with their veteran linebacker.

Mike Tomlin provides Bengals recap, injury update

Mike Tomlin recapped the Steelers' performance against Cincinnati before talking briefly about injuries and the next opponent, the Green Bay Packers. The PG's Ed Bouchette puts it all in context. (Video by Andrew Rush; 12/17/2013)

Worilds will become an unrestricted free agent March 11, the same month in which he turns 26. Woodley, who is signed through the 2016 season, turns 30 in November.

It is unlikely they could keep both for two reasons: They are cap-strapped and might not be able to afford both, and they drafted Jarvis Jones in the first round in the spring to be a starter.

This is the third season in which Woodley has missed significant playing time to leg injuries, most of them damage to muscles. He will miss five this season, bringing to 14 he has missed outright since 2011, not counting portions of other games he started and was forced out with injuries.

There was a time Woodley was among the most feared pass-rushers in the NFL.

In his first three seasons, he rang up 35 sacks. The Steelers signed him to a contract during training camp in 2011 worth $61.5 million over six seasons. He roared out of the box that season with nine sacks in the first six games. Then came the hamstring injuries that ruined the second half of the season, when he played briefly in only two games.

An ankle injury dogged him in 2012 and, although he started 13 games, his play fell off sharply and he finished with four sacks.

Then came a stinging repute of Woodley when Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook quoted a Steelers teammate anonymously in February, saying this about Woodley’s 2012 season:

“He 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.”

The veteran linebacker changed his workout routine this year, convinced by Ryan Clark to join him with his trainer in Arizona. Woodley started the 2013 season strong and had five sacks in the first six games.

He hasn’t had one since Oct. 20, however, and the linebacker who once specialized in multiple-sack games hasn’t had two in a game since Oct. 30, 2011 when he had his third consecutive two-sack game and 7.5 sacks over four games.

Over what will be the past 2½ seasons, he has had nine sacks total.

In the meantime, Worilds has sprouted this season. A second-round draft pick in 2010, he found himself behind two Pro Bowlers, Woodley and James Harrison, at outside linebacker. Then, when Harrison was out with a knee injury to open the 2012 season, Worilds’ wrist was still weak from surgery the previous spring, and the Steelers opted to start Chris Carter for Harrison instead.

Worilds started seven games for the injured Woodley later in the season, but his coaches said his wrist still wasn’t right. He had three sacks in those starts but did not make a big impression.

That all changed this season. Worilds opened it as the starting right outside linebacker but was demoted in favor of Jones for the next four games, the two splitting playing time. Worilds returned to start in the fifth game and stayed at right outside linebacker until Woodley was injured again.

Worilds replaced Woodley on the left side, and they kept him there when Woodley returned to health, a strong signal of them favoring Worilds, who leads the Steelers with seven sacks and is tied with end Cameron Heyward with 28 quarterback pressures (Woodley is fourth with 17).

Coach Mike Tomlin, asked how Woodley performed this season, said, “He’s been solid, not only this season but over the course of his career. But, obviously, particularly in recent years, he’s had to battle some injuries, unfortunately for him and for us.”

If the Steelers decide to release Woodley, there are salary-cap ramifications. He is due salaries over the next three seasons of $8 million, $8.5 million and $9 million. His salary-cap hits over those three seasons are $13.6 million (second-highest on the team), $14 million and $12 million.

If they would release him by June 1, he would count $14 million against their cap in 2014 but nothing in the years after that, plus they would owe him nothing in salary. If they cut him after June 1, they would have to keep him on their books as a $13.6 million hit until then, when his cap number would drop to $5.6 million. His 2015 hit would then count $8.5 million and the accounting for 2016 would be erased.

In all three years, the Steelers would save both cap room and $25.5 million in salary. But they would not have the services of LaMarr Woodley. It could be the biggest decision that confronts them after the season.

Short snaps

• The Steelers signed another linebacker to take Woodley’s place on the 53-man roster, Jamaal Westerman, a five-year veteran cut by the Buffalo Bills Dec. 10. Westerman, who played at Rutgers, also played in the NFL with Arizona, Indianapolis and the New York Jets, who signed him as an undrafted rookie in 2009. He has played in 57 games with three career starts.

• Tomlin indicated that defensive end Brett Keisel, who played just seven snaps in the past five games because of a foot injury, should return to practice this week and play. He also was optimistic about nose tackle Steve McLendon returning after an ankle injury kept him out of the Sunday night game against Cincinnati.

• It sounds as if Tomlin expects the NFL to discipline linebacker Terence Garvin for his block on Bengals punter Kevin Huber, who broke his jaw and will have season-ending surgery Friday.

“The nature in which the block unfolded, obviously, is not what we’re looking for,” Tomlin said, adding, “We’ll wait for potential judgment from the league.”

• The Steelers signed linebacker Kion Wilson to their practice squad. He was released Saturday from their 53-man roster.

Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.

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