By Jeremy Hritz
LaMarr Woodley underperformed last season.
Whether or not it was due to a lack of conditioning, injury, or both, the Pittsburgh Steelers cannot absorb another similar outing and expect to improve on an 8-8 season. Criticized in the offseason by an unnamed teammate for poor conditioning, Woodley showed up to this year’s OTAs in solid shape, as linebackers coach Keith Butler commented, “whatever he did, it appears to be right.” Whether or not it was his conditioning that hindered his performance, Woodley must regain the form that made him a formidable presence on the outside.
Woodley has been a productive pass rusher, with the exception of last season, accumulating 52 sacks over six seasons. His highest sack total came in 2009 when he totaled 13.5, while he matched his lowest output of four sacks from his rookie season in 2012. Putting Woodley’s production over his first six years into perspective, he has recorded more sacks in that time period than Joey Porter (42.5), James Harrison (38.5), and Jason Gildon (36.5), and it is difficult to believe that he will not be able to return to his disruptive ways. When it is all said and done, Woodley has a great opportunity to eclipse Gildon’s sack record with the Steelers (77) as he is only 28 years old entering his seventh season. In fact, if Woodley can record 12.5 sacks over the next two seasons, he can tie Gildon’s record and be primed to obliterate the record in 2015.
While his sack totals will serve as an interesting anecdote at the conclusion of Woodley’s career, the more important need for Woodley’s rejuvenation this year is to help the Steelers return to the playoffs to compete for another Super Bowl because as evidenced in 2012, the absence of his pass rush does not create the turnovers needed to be a championship defense.
Following last season, there were calls for Woodley’s job and the widely held belief was that he was uncommitted to his responsibilities with the Steelers, and it is hard to counterattack that argument. In 2012, Woodley started in 13 out of 16 games as he struggled with injuries. In addition to his decline in his effectiveness in rushing the passer, 2012 also marked Woodley’s lowest totals in combined total tackles. Moving forward into 2013, the Michigan native must improve his output at left outside linebacker in order to resurrect a pass rush that was below the line last season.
With the departure of Harrison for the Cincinnati Bengals, Woodley will be expected to, by default, lead the younger outside backers such as rookie Jarvis Jones, Chris Carter, Adrian Robinson, and even Jason Worilds, which is why staying healthy, arriving to training camp in shape, and producing in 2013 is essential.
It’s hard to imagine # 56 having another poor season, and in an article in Michigan Live by Hugh Bernreuter, Woodley says that his expectations and the team’s expectations have not changed: “We expect to win all of our games and go to the Super Bowl. That’s the goal every year.”
While winning every game may not be a realistic expectation, if he can duplicate his past successes, it could go a long way in the Steelers reach their destination.