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Saturday, January 17, 2009
Woodley is back for Pittsburgh

By James Walker
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

 
  Donald Miralle/Getty Images
  Linebacker LaMarr Woodley, right, is playing well at a critical time for the Steelers.

PITTSBURGH -- Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu playfully described the recent mannerisms of teammate and linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

"He was depressed. He was eating a lot and gaining a lot of weight," Polamalu said smiling.

The topic was the month-long slump of Woodley, who went the final four games during the regular season without registering a sack. The usually stout Woodley had 11.5 sacks in his first 12 games before suddenly hitting a dry spell.

Woodley responded well by coming up big in last week's 35-24 playoff victory over the San Diego Chargers. Woodley recorded five tackles and two sacks of quarterback Philip Rivers, including a key sack near San Diego's end zone in the second half that nearly knocked Rivers out of the game.

Known for his physical style and hard hitting, Woodley was in fine form again, just in time for Pittsburgh's AFC Championship Game Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.

"I was aware but it wasn't a big thing for me," Woodley said of his sack drought. "We were winning, and when you're winning football games that's all that counts. There's plenty of guys around the league that have a lot of sacks and aren't where we are right now."

Woodley, who is in his second season but first as a starter, may have hit the wall at the 12-game mark. Coaches and teammates say that's debatable as Woodley has played consistent football in other areas -- stuffing the run and applying pressure to the quarterbacks -- despite the lack of sacks.

One of the biggest plays Woodley made this season came during his sack drought. Woodley forced an errant pass by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, which was intercepted by Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend and returned for the game-winning touchdown in Week 14.

"I think as a true rookie, [wearing down] might have been the case because you don't have to deal with this many games, but I don't think I saw that in his play this year," Steelers linebacker coach Keith Butler said. "A lot of times guys are nicked up late in the year and they just get well."

Woodley proved that even younger players can benefit from a bye week. As Butler alluded to, Woodley was dealing with a calf muscle injury late in the season. Woodley never made excuses, but it did hinder his first step and explosiveness.

But the Steelers' earning a bye week allowed Woodley -- as well as several other key Steelers -- to get healthy. Now Woodley has his second wind for the stretch run.

Busting Out of a Slump
Date Opponent Tackles Sacks
Dec. 7 Dallas 5 0
Dec. 14 at Baltimore 2 0
Dec. 21 at Tennessee 3 0
Dec. 28 Cleveland 2 0
Jan. 11 * San Diego 5 2
* Playoff game

As teammate and NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison continues to get double teamed on the other side, it will be important for Woodley to continue to produce from the other side. Pittsburgh's top-rated unit was at its best when both players were wreaking havoc on opposing offenses.

"He's played pretty good throughout the season," Butler said of Woodley. "Everybody goes through dry spells. James Harrison has 16 sacks and he didn't get sacks in every game. They came in bunches for him, too. So I don't think this was anything unusual for LaMarr. He plays hard."

An endearing quality of the Steelers' defense is that the unit has overcome individual slumps and injuries to continue to play high-quality football. It's one of the reasons Pittsburgh is one game away from its second Super Bowl appearance in four seasons.

"We always say if one guy makes the play, we all make the play," Polamalu said. "As long as we're successful, we all win championships together. We all get the same size Super Bowl ring."