You knew it was bound to happen. At some point, James Harrison’s body had to start deteriorating due to his hard-nosed play and his age (34 currently). With Deebo’s knee being scoped and already with back issues, #92 is in danger of missing a decent amount of time this season, and is at the age where Outside Linebackers start to see the quality of their play decline. Then when you add in the fact that he will be one of the more expensive players for the franchise to keep post-2012 ($6.5+ mil due in 2013), the Steelers could sure use another Outside Linebacker to step up either this season or the next to take Harrison’s spot and strike fear into opposing Quarterbacks. Luckily for Pittsburgh and “Steeler Nation” alike, a Pro Bowler is already on their roster.
Because the Front Office already had salary cap issues, were intent on and allowed veteran dead-weight to hang around on the roster, did not address other positions of need (particularly Offensive Line), and did not use the money to lock up other talented players already on the team (#17), I am still not what you would call the biggest fan of the $61.5 million dollar extension that the club signed LaMarr Woodley to last season. Quibbles about the size and the nature of the extension aside, I am however glad that the Steelers extended Woodley for one very important reason. Why you may ask? Well, because if there is anything the Steelers currently need which they appeared not to need in August of 2011, it is experienced and quality depth at the Outside Linebacker position.
With “Deebo’s” status already discussed, the Steelers are not exactly setting the world ablaze in the pass rushing department as they enter the 2012 campaign. Top backup Jason Worilds is on the shelf nursing a bum wrist, and who knows when he will be ready to play. Chris Carter is a talented player ready to break out but still without any significant game experience. Veteran Free Agent pickup Brandon Johnson is likely to split time on the Inside, used in pass coverage in sub-packages, and star on Special Teams where he has excelled in the past. And raw UDFA Adrian Robinson is on the roster but will likely be a Special Teams contributor this season if he makes the team.
Because of this, Pittsburgh needs all hands on deck in the pass-rushing department this season, and Woodley will be counted on to step up his game and lead the charge. If the Steelers Defense wants to improve on the paltry Turnover statistics which they put up in 2011, it starts with the pass-rush and attacking the Quarterback on a consistent basis, and this is where Woodley unquestionably helps this team the most.
In a recent post by Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.com (via Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), Linebackers Coach Keith Butler is ready to see Woodley take “the next step” and emerge as an elite player. Unlike 2011, Butler wants Woodley motivated and hungry to step his game up in 2012 and become a the “great” player (DPOY like Harrison in 2008) he knows that he can be, not a “good” one (48.0 career Sacks) which Woodley already is.
The stage is thus set for #56 to become the next terrific 3-4 Outside Linebacker which this system has produced and helped to achieve greatness since the early 1980’s. As I alluded to before, Pittsburgh’s pass-rush and improvement in said department will be of the utmost importance this season, and could be the biggest thing between success and failure for this team in 2012. Pittsburgh will be inserting Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown into the lineup quite a bit this season, and there is no better way to help young and inexperienced Corners (inexperience as a starter for Lewis) than a fantastic pass rush.
A hampered Deebo playing not at 80%, a PUP List Deebo, or Deebo not around come 2013-2014 is bad. An injured Worilds, plus Carter not panning out compounding those events is even worse. Regardless if events do transpire in these directions or not, the soon to be 28 year-old former Wolverine will be asked to be the “Head Honcho” at Outside Linebacker sooner rather than later.
With these things in mind, Woodley must answer the proverbial “bell” and answer it now. Woodley has at least a three to four year window to be the #1 guy on his depth chart at the position, and be the most feared option on the Steelers’ Defense when the opposition breaks down game tape for the week. Will he take what Butler said to heart and be “great?” Or will Woodley just be content to be “good?”
I am sure that I can speak for all of Steeler Nation when I hope that it is the former.
Stats Courtesy of: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/