The Steelers in 2008: Lamarr Woodley
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After spending just one week at training camp as a volunteer assistant, Kevin Greene discovered all he needed to know about LaMarr Woodley, an outside linebacker playing the same position in the 3-4 defense Greene manned for three seasons with the Steelers in the mid-1990s.
"He's 20 pounds heavier than I played," Greene said. "If he realizes what kind of pain and punishment he brings to the table, weighing 265 pounds, he could be hard to stop.
"I think if he gets a ticked-off, mean streak and starts running over people, at 265 pounds, I don't know if there's anyone who can block him."
Say hello to the next generation of Steelers linebacker.
There were great ones who didn't weigh more than 225 pounds, players such as Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Greg Lloyd. There were massive ones such as Levon Kirkland, who played in the middle at 280 pounds. And then there were players such as Greene, who weighed 245, and Joey Porter, a four-time Pro Bowler who weighed 250.
Then there is Woodley, last year's No. 2 draft choice whom the Steelers almost couldn't wait to insert into the starting lineup this season.
He registered six sacks as a rookie, even though he spent most of the season sitting on the bench, watching and learning from the player he would eventually replace, Clark Haggans. He has such raw ability and power that The Sporting News named him as the National Football League's Breakout Player of 2008 -- the player most likely to make a big impact this season.
And, make no mistake, he is big -- 6 feet 2, 265 pounds -- the biggest outside linebacker the Steelers have employed as a starter.
"He can lay into you," said right tackle Willie Colon, the player who faces Woodley in practice. "He's a great threat for us. The sky's the limit what he can do."
"I look for big things from him," said inside linebacker Larry Foote.
"I hate to use the 'P' word -- it's gotten a lot of people in trouble -- but he has all the potential in the world," Greene said. "What I saw was a lot of instinct. What I saw was him come up the field, contact the offensive tackle and then do something else to catch the tackle off guard. I saw a lot of instinct. That's not a coach-able thing. You got to have that instinct. That's a non-coach-able attribute."
The Steelers return 19 of 22 starters from last year's 10-6 team that won the AFC North title. The only new starters are center Justin Hartwig, acquired in free agency from the Carolina Panthers; guard Chris Kemoeatu and Woodley. Woodley is a converted defensive end who does more than just rush the passer -- he knows how to rush the passer, a player who combines the power to bull rush with a quick first step to speed rush.
He showed all that at Michigan, where he won the Lombardi Trophy as the nation's top lineman, the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's best defensive end and was named the Big Ten Conference Defensive Player of the Year. But, because he was not very tall, he slipped to the second round of the draft, where the Steelers quickly selected him with the 46th overall pick.
"He has the talent, he has the skill that it takes to be successful, but there's a lot more to the position," said former outside linebacker Jason Gildon, a former three-time Pro Bowler. Like Greene, Gildon spent a week as a volunteer assistant at training camp in Latrobe, working with the linebackers.
"He's going to have to approach it from that standpoint that it's not college. You don't have the luxury of sitting back sometimes and learning. In his position, he has to go out and play this year. He's going to have to play at a high level this year. I think he's going to have to get that mind-set where he gets himself up every week and go out and produce.
"Right now, he's in a new position. He's a starter. He didn't have that last year. But he's the guy this year. Right now, more than anything, he has to be mentally tough to accept that responsibility because, when you step on the field, guys depend on you to produce. It's a lot different than coming off the bench to play in spots."
Despite getting a lot of playing time in the preseason, especially in pass-rush situations, Woodley rarely played in the regular season. He appeared for only 80 of the defense's 933 snaps, yet still managed to register four sacks (the same as Haggans). He added two more sacks in the playoff loss to Jacksonville, leaving only James Farrior (6.5) and Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison (8.5) as the only Steelers players with more sacks in 2007.
"That's what he's been doing since he's been at Michigan," said Foote, who also played at Michigan. "He showed last year he can rush the passer. It's just the mental stuff, like with coverage, that's going to be his only challenge. As far as rushing the passer, he's born with that.
"With his power, he's going to be hard for tight ends and running backs to block him. Anytime a tight end or running back is matched up on him, it should be a sack."
The Steelers are counting on just that. After registering 39 sacks in 2006 and only 36 last season, they are hoping to get more pressure off the left side. Haggans was not re-signed in free agency because the Steelers wanted to get Woodley on the field on a regular basis and were grooming him to be the heir.
Opposing offenses are going to face a quandary: Should they be more concerned with Harrison on the right side or Woodley on the left?
"I had confidence that once I got out there, I had the desire and the power in me to go out there and compete," Woodley said. "One thing about me, I hate to lose. When I'm rushing at you or whatever I'm doing, you're always going to get my best and I'm going to keep coming and coming and coming."
Greene, who had 160 career sacks in his 15-year NFL career, more than any other linebacker, said good pass rushers have more than one move and, more importantly, can adapt their move in mid-rush. That's why he said Woodley has the instincts to be a good pass-rusher -- he can transition on the fly.
"You always have to have a counter move," Woodley said. "Some guys you go up against might be good stopping a speed rusher, but they might not be good against somebody who's a speed rusher who will fake inside and chop your hands down."
"There are a lot of elements to his game that prove he definitely has the potential to be a Pro Bowler the next couple years," Colon said.
There's that "P" word again. The Steelers hope it stands for production.
First Published September 5, 2008 12:00 am