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|Steelers second-year linebacker LaMarr Woodley (56) already has 7.5 sacks. Teammate James Farrior leads the Steelers with 50 tackles.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Their ages range from 24 to 33.
They were pieced together via free agency and through the draft.
Yet, despite their varying paths to the NFL, they have become the league's most cohesive and dangerous unit.
They are the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting linebackers, who once again are wreaking havoc around the league. Outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison and inside linebackers James Farrior and Larry Foote combine to make up the foundation of the NFL's No. 1 defense, which is only allowing an average of 236 yards per game.
Woodley and Foote were drafted out of Michigan, albeit five years apart. Harrison, who attended Kent State, was a free agent in 2004 who finally had his breakout campaign last season, and Farrior signed with Pittsburgh in free agency in 2002.
Pittsburgh's fearsome foursome have combined for 19 of the team's 25 sacks, which is the second-highest total in the league. The Steelers finished last season as the NFL's top defense and so far are on pace to repeat that feat.
"We bring a whole [different] attitude to the game," Woodley said recently. "We want to stay the No. 1 defense. When you get in the No. 1 spot, you want to stay in the No. 1 spot, and if we do what we do week in and week out, it doesn't matter who is across from us."
The fire that burns amongst Pittsburgh's linebacker corps starts from within.
First, they have a strong tradition of great Steelers linebacking to uphold. Second, there is a healthy rivalry internally this season that is driving each player. When one linebacker makes a big stop, he makes sure to let his other teammates know about it. The same rule applies for sacks.
That has especially been the case with Harrison (8.5 sacks) and Woodley (7.5 sacks), who often brag to each other about getting to the quarterback first. They are third and fourth in the NFL in sacks, respectively, and both have a chance to win the NFL's sack title by season's end.
Farrior, meanwhile, leads the Steelers (5-2) in tackles with 50 and has a pair of sacks. Foote also has two sacks to go with his 28 tackles.
"We think the best competition is in our own backyard," said Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin of his defense this season.
The 3-4 defense does not work without stud linebackers playing on the same page. Other teams such as the Cleveland Browns have struggled with this difficult scheme for several seasons and have been unable to duplicate Pittsburgh's success.
The keys are physicality and discipline, which are two things Pittsburgh longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau stresses. The Steelers are very technically sound in rushing the passer and staying in their gaps to prevent big plays in the running game.
"When you look at Dick LeBeau, he is a perfectionist," said Keith Kidd of Scouts Inc. "He is an outstanding teacher and schemer, and he understands the system and knows what types of players fit in that system."
On ESPN's "Monday Night Football" (8:30 ET), the Steelers will face off with Washington Redskins (6-2) tailback Clinton Portis. He leads the NFL in rushing with 944 yards through eight games. Pittsburgh -- whose two losses this season have come to the NFC East's Eagles and Giants -- is allowing just 71.6 yards rushing per game and has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season.
No one has been able to stuff Portis this year, and his production will be key in determining the outcome of this game. If Washington fails to get its running game started and resorts to passing 30-plus times with Jason Campbell, that should allow the Steelers to bring their different pressures and rattle the fourth-year quarterback,
who has yet to toss an interception this season.
"This is a dynamic defense, and when you play Pittsburgh you are going to get hit right in the mouth," Kidd said. "Now how you respond to that is how you can either win the game or not."