Rod Woodson and big plays synonymous in long career
June 28, 2009 4:00 AM
Peter Diana /Post-Gazette
As a Steeler ... Rod Woodson
Rod Woodson examines the 1987 draft board.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Rod Woodson made Hall of Fame plays throughout his 17-year career, none more memorable than his rocket in the Astrodome that forged Chuck Noll's first playoff victory in five years.
The Steelers squeaked into the NFL playoffs as a 9-7 wild card in 1989 and opened at the Houston Oilers, the AFC Central Division champs.
The underdog Steelers found themselves on the brink of elimination in overtime as Houston drove near midfield toward a possible winning field goal. Halfback Lorenzo White took a handoff and ran around left end, where Woodson smacked into him, forcing the ball loose. Woodson recovered the fumble at the Oilers' 46 and five plays later Gary Anderson kicked a 50-yard field goal to win it.
"It was a phenomenal play," said Tom Donahoe, the Steelers' former director of football operations. "In the space of one play, Rod changed the whole game. It just seemed with Rod, when a big play had to be made, he'd make it."
Woodson anticipated plays like few others. He made a habit of breaking on sideline patterns to intercept passes, like the one he made against Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills in 1994.
"We were playing on Monday night in Pittsburgh," former teammate Carnell Lake recalled, "and Rod was talking in the huddle: 'Hey, you safeties, watch my back, they've been running this play a lot and I think they'll run it here and I'll pick it.' Sure enough, Kelly threw the ball his way, Rod picked it and ran for a touchdown."
It covered 37 yards, the Steelers' first touchdown on way to a 23-10 victory.
Woodson's influence, though, went beyond big plays. Former Baltimore coach Brian Billick remembers vividly a game in 2000 when his great Ravens defense faltered early against the Cleveland Browns.
"Cleveland was a team struggling at the time, and we figured, here's another shutout," Billick said. "But the game opens and they go the length of the field for a touchdown."
Billick was about to say something to his defenders as they came off the field when Woodson interrupted him.
"As I was making my way to the defense, Rod approached me and he said, with respect, 'We're fine, leave them alone.' It was his calculation, his assessment, they don't need a butt-chewing right now.
"That's the type of leadership I'm talking about. At times you have to judge, 'Leave them alone.' He sized up a very prideful group and probably the best thing that could happen was what happened, it shocked them and brought them back into focus.
"Cleveland had 80 yards on that first drive and I think 120 for the whole game. The rest of the day was a total beatdown. Rod had that perspective, he could give you those insights."