On the Steelers: LBs hobbling, but Woodley making a healthy impact
September 21, 2012 4:00 PM
With a depleted linebacking corps, the Steelers are relying on LaMarr Woodley to anchor the Steelers.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It looks as if James Harrison will miss his third consecutive game as the attrition among Steelers linebackers begins to add up again.
There is Harrison, who missed five games last season and who has yet to play in any game since Jan. 1 because of a lingering knee injury. There is highly touted rookie Sean Spence, lost for the season with an anterior cruciate ligament tear. There is top backup inside linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, who played in the first preseason game and nothing since because of a torn medial collateral ligament.
"We're just getting them out of the way early," Larry Foote said of the injuries to his fellow linebackers. "Better in September and August than November and December."
At least LaMarr Woodley has stayed healthy, and he let the New York Jets know it Sunday. Woodley, whose second half of 2011 was ruined by a hamstring injury after a furious first half, cranked it up against the Jets. He had his first sack and he had six quarterback pressures. That's half the team's two-game total of 12.
"He had a lot of pressures, a whole lot," said Chris Carter, who has started in place of Harrison at right outside linebacker. "He almost had two sacks.
"He's a phenomenal player. That explains why he has such a great contract and is so widely known around the NFL. He's faster than most people think for his size. He can cover very well, which makes it harder for quarterbacks to read what he's doing -- is he dropping back, is he coming this time? And when he comes, he's not just a speed rusher or a power rusher. He has a lot of weight, strength and is very versatile."
That versatility might actually reduce Woodley's opportunities to sack the quarterback. In Denver, he hardly rushed Peyton Manning.
"We didn't really rush the first game," Carter said. "Just different teams, different schemes. We had a different scheme vs. the Jets and it involved him rushing a lot and he had a lot of success with it."
Dick LeBeau also unveiled a controversial new scheme that took Woodley out of the game. On third down no less. Woodley never comes out of games, but in what coaches call the Big Nickel, the Steelers took both outside linebackers out, and went with four defensive linemen in a 4-2-5 alignment.
"We always have an eye for down the road and make sure we have enough packages in place. When we get thin at any one position as we are right now at outside linebacker, we make sure we have enough defenses that if we lose a guy or two on Sunday we have something to go to.
"They did a good job. They're getting a few snaps in practice, but it's just making sure we have enough people at enough spots to go through a 16-game season."
The coaches only ran that defense three times, but don't look for Woodley to leave the field again anytime soon. After all, they had to play defense too much without him last season.
Chris Rainey, the explosive rookie running back, still is waiting to break loose the way he did in the preseason. He scored on a 41-yard touchdown run, he scored on a 57-yard reception off a short pass and he scored on two long punt returns that were negated by holding penalties.
Yet through two real games, Rainey has four carries for 8 yards, two receptions for 4 yards, one punt return for 13 yards and two kickoff returns for 45 yards.
"I'm just waiting, waiting for my opportunity," Rainey said. "That's all I'm doing, being patient."
Rainey returned no punts in the first game when Antonio Brown handled them in Denver. At home against the Jets, he and Brown split the duties with Brown usually dropping back when the punt was expected to land deep in Steelers territory.
Rainey said he's not disappointed with his few opportunities so far.
"If you get disappointed, you mess up your game, so I can't do that. Just sitting, being patient, waiting for my opportunity to come and I'll be ready for it."
The Raiders are so desperate for cornerbacks they might move their starting free safety, Michael Huff, into that position for Sunday's game against the Steelers.
Too bad they released DeMarcus Van Dyke two weeks ago. Since then, the Steelers signed Van Dyke and the Raiders have lost two starting cornerbacks to injuries. Ron Bartell's shoulder blade was broken in the opener; Oakland placed him on injured reserve. Last week, former Pitt and Woodland Hills High player Shawntae Spencer left the game with a sprained foot that likely will keep him out Sunday.
The Raiders signed Brandian Ross off Green Bay's practice squad, but could have used Van Dyke, their third-round pick in 2011. Instead, he will come out of the tunnel with the visitors Sunday at Oakland.
"It's a blessing in disguise," Van Dyke said of his uniform swap.
Van Dyke cleared waivers and the Steelers were the first to offer him a contract. He had met Mike Tomlin at Miami's pro day two years ago and also is boyhood friends with Antonio Brown. They lived in the same Miami Gardens neighborhood and were Little League teammates.
The speedy Van Dyke has made several good plays on special teams in both games with the Steelers, but Tomlin said the Steelers were more interested in him as a cornerback coming into the draft. They might have used the third-round pick on him had the Raiders not taken him. The Steelers drafted cornerback Curtis Brown after that.
So they picked up what they believe is a good cornerback for nothing and the Raiders let Van Dyke go so they could sign punt returner Phillip Adams, who has averaged 12.2 yards on six returns.
"It will be emotional, but at the same time it's a business," Van Dyke said of his return to Oakland this weekend. "I'll just try to help my team win a game."
• Troy Polamalu (calf) joined Harrison again on the sideline at practice. Rookie tackle Mike Adams (back) did not practice again, which means fellow rookie Kelvin Beachum could dress for the first time. Heath Miller (ribs) missed his second practice and Byron Leftwich was out sick.
• Linebacker Lawrence Timmons told 93.7 The Fan that the NFL fined him $21,000 for his hit on Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.