Kovacevic: LaMarr's lament? Who knows?
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At 3:53 p.m. Sunday, the Steelers' winter ended with a whimper, this thoroughly hollow 24-10 burial of the beat-up, bumbling Cleveland Browns at a half-empty Heinz Field.
Minutes later, Mike Tomlin stood outside the home locker room and shook the hands of all his men as they passed. He always does that.
“Thanks for the effort,” the coach would repeat to each, again and again.
Otherwise, though, no one really seemed to know what to say ...
Tomlin: “It was good to finish on a positive note.”
Ben Roethlisberger: “It was important to go into our offseason with a good taste.”
Max Starks: “We didn't want to have a losing record. Besides, it's Cleveland, you know?”
But, hey, who can blame them?
Can anyone fully process how a team goes 8-8 and misses the playoffs with the No. 1-ranked defense, with a brand-name quarterback who threw for 26 touchdowns against eight picks, with solid talent at the skill positions, all within the context of an awful AFC?
Nope. Me, neither. It was a big mess, deserving of massive and widespread blame.
But that still won't stop me from saying this: No one, not any player or coach or executive, let down these 2012 Steelers more than one LaMarr Dewayne Woodley.
And it might not be close.
After yet another afternoon of being engulfed by whatever warm body was playing right tackle for the opponent — zero sacks, five tackles, zero everything else — Woodley finished his season with a grand total of four sacks.
None after Nov. 18.
None in his final 204 snaps.
Forget his other numbers, none of which were any good anyway. Sacks are Woodley's game. That's how he earned that six-year, $61.5 million extension last summer, by recording 11.5, 13.5, 10 and 9 the previous four seasons. The guy was an undeniable, often unstoppable force.
Take that element out of the defense, and it's a whole lot easier to explain the paltry 20 defensive takeaways, which, to my mind, best defined these Steelers' shortcomings as a whole: They scared no one. If you seldom put any opponent outside its comfort zone, even Oakland, Tennessee, San Diego and Cleveland can hang around long enough to bite you.
Tomlin had to know he wouldn't get the classic James Harrison at the other outside linebacker spot, given Harrison being 34 and coming off knee surgery. But the coach had every right to expect so much more from Woodley, in his prime at 28 and — presumably, anyway — fully recovered from his long-nagging hamstring trouble. He had every right to expect a star.
It never materialized, barely even in a spurt or two.
In fact, to watch how Woodley plodded about the field almost all season, it's fair to wonder if it wasn't more than the hamstring or a wobbly ankle that was — ahem — weighing him down.
I approached Woodley after this game to ask about his conditioning and much more, but upon being asked, he silently declined and left the room.
I turned instead to Ziggy Hood, the defensive end who has long lined up next to Woodley.
“There's more to LaMarr's sacks than just him,” Hood said. “He didn't start off healthy and … some plays, you just don't get there. There were some games he played well and just wasn't blessed with the opportunity to make a play. I wouldn't say he had a down year. He played well when he had a chance.”
Woodley isn't an easy read. Never has been.
He's visibly passionate about his work, even sharing that intimately with his Facebook and Twitter followers. On the day he signed that big contract, he tweeted, “Drafted here … super bowl here ... will retire here!! now time to get u this 7th trophy!!!!”
But it's equally apparent that there isn't exactly a wealth of self-accountability going on. To hear Woodley tell it, his next bad game will be his first. If he isn't getting sacks, it's because he's dropping into coverage. Or being double-teamed. Or hurt.
Friday night, on a weekly radio show he does with Emmanuel Sanders, Woodley railed against the media, mostly for attaching his contract to his name when criticizing him.
It's only occurring to him now that being paid like a franchise player would raise expectations?
Look, Harrison might or might not be back. I think he will, albeit with a big pay cut. But Woodley definitely will return. It's incumbent on him and the coaching staff and the conditioning folks to get him all the way back.
No more explanations for anything less.
No more excuses.
If that doesn't happen, don't expect this defense — or the Steelers' results as a whole — to differ much in 2013.
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