Woodley, Harrison's health key for Steelers
Steelers linebacker coach Keith Butler responded to a simple question with an even simpler response.
How much of a difference does it make to have LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison healthy and on the field together?
“Well, with both of them out there, which one do you block?” Butler said.
Good question. Harrison and Woodley have been one of the most dynamic, disrupting defensive duos in the NFL since 2008, combining for 89 1⁄2 sacks and helping the Steelers' defense finish No. 1 in total defense twice.
But take away Gilbert, and there's no Sullivan. Take away Abbott, and there's no Costello. Take away Harrison and Woodley, and there's no production.
Woodley and Harrison played only 18 quarters together last year because of poorly timed absences — Woodley a hamstring; Harrison a facial fracture/suspension — resulting in some of the worst defensive stats in Steelers history.
“It's obvious that we feel that if both are on the field at the same time, we have a better chance of winning because we put more pressure on the quarterback,” Harrison said. “Hopefully, me and Wood can get out there and be on the field at the same time and, hopefully, stay healthy.”
The Steelers had their lowest sack total since 1990 (35), fewest forced fumbles in franchise history (four), fewest turnovers in franchise history (15) and allowed more than 4 yards per carry for only the fourth time since the AFL-NFL merger.
That's a big discrepancy from the previous three years when Harrison and Woodley started 46 of 48 regular-season games together and helped the defense average 49 sacks, 11 forced fumbles, 29 turnovers and 3.4 yards per rush attempt per season.
“It is real easy then when both of us are in there,” Woodley said. “We have high production when we are in there together. We kind of work with one another. When he is in and I am in, you can't just focus on one guy. When you focus on one guy, the other guy will get you.”
Despite finishing No. 1 again last year, the defense wasn't the same without Woodley and Harrison. For the first time, neither reached double digits in sacks while playing together. Both finished with nine.
“With them, the sky can be the limit with those two guys healthy,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “We all know what those two guys bring to the table.”
Linebacker Larry Foote added: “They dominate when they are in there together.”
The Steelers are being cautious with Harrison and Woodley this training camp.
Harrison hasn't been on the field since the second OTA session in May with a sore knee, and Woodley was held out of a pair of practices because of a groin injury before returning Friday night. Harrison is also only 16 months removed from a pair of back surgeries.
“I probably wasn't close to 100 percent until I came back from my eye injury last year,” Harrison said. “But that is part of the game. Nobody is ever 100 percent.”
Butler knows what kind of issues Harrison and Woodley can create for the opposition when they're healthy and on the field.
“It creates problems for offenses and how they are going to protect and how they are going to run the edges on us with those two out there,” Butler said. “We hope to have them well this year and keep them well the entire year. If we can do that, the production will return, and we should be pretty good against the run.”
By their standards, the Steelers weren't good stopping the run last season. They allowed an average of 100 yards per game — or nearly 40 more than the year before.
“You can really see their impact against the run because they really crash everything,” Foote said. “They are kind of hard to block. Even when you double-team them, you can't really move them, so you are wasting a guy.”
Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-664-9161, Ext. 1978.