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Steelers linebacker Woodley healthy, making difference

| Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, 7:36 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley celebrates a first-quarter sack against the Titans on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, at Heinz Field.

LaMarr Woodley knew his stat sheet would be scrutinized and his game analyzed, in part, because the Steelers rewarded him with a lucrative deal after he established himself as one of the premier pass-rushers in the NFL.

But two months after signing a six-year, $61.5 million contract in 2011, things began to unravel somewhat for the suddenly oft-injured outside linebacker.

The team's 2007 second-round pick missed only four games his first four seasons. But a series of bouts with hamstring and ankle ailments caused him to sit out nine games the past two seasons.

“It wasn't just about my fitness,” said Woodley, who was limited in practice Wednesday with a sore knee. “It was about being hurt. If I'm not injured, I give it my all. When I don't play well, I feel like I let everyone around me down.

“When I'm getting sacks, it puts us in a better situation defensively. It puts energy in the crowd. It puts something in the quarterback's mind.”

Woodley's sack totals dropped from a career-high 13 12 in 2009 to four in 2012, mostly because his injuries tempered his aggressiveness. He wasn't nearly as quick and agile, which allowed once-overmatched offensive linemen to keep him at bay in the pocket.

The coaching staff seemed willing to let Woodley pace himself to avert the nagging injuries that hindered him. He was supposed to split snaps more regularly with his backups, but he's relented by elevating his game.

Woodley, sometimes criticized for arriving at camp out of shape since the Steelers' Super Bowl loss to Green Bay in 2010, has turned things around this season. He is playing with more confidence as the 1-4 Steelers attempt to get back into contention in the AFC North when they face rival Baltimore (3-3) on Sunday at Heinz Field.

“LaMarr really worked this offseason, because he's conscious of the fact that his injuries kept him off the field,” linebacker coach Keith Butler said. “He understands that if he's injured, he's not where he needs to be in terms of the role he plays on our defense.

“He's worked hard on trying to lose some weight. And he made a point to get in the best possible shape.”

Woodley, visibly trimmer and quicker, has registered a sack in all but one game this season to match his total from last season. More importantly, he's managed to stay healthy to once again establish himself as one of the league's dominant pass-rushers.

“You have to credit his offseason work, and it's showing up right now,” cornerback William Gay said. “It helps the defense a lot with his pressure on the quarterback, which brings the route tree down for receivers.”

“(Woodley) came back in a great shape, so it's not as if he's taking plays off,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “He's a big factor in what we did against the Jets and what we have to do to stop the Ravens.”

Woodley will be counted on to disrupt the rhythm of Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who has been forced to throw the ball more this season because the Ravens' run game has been largely ineffective.

Even though he'll have to help contain running back Ray Rice, it's his ability to get after Flacco that will get most everyone's attention.

“Sometimes, people don't understand why my sack numbers are down,” Woodley said prior to Thursday's practice. “They only look at the sacks, but don't pay attention to the hurries.

“I got 13 sacks, and we didn't go to the playoffs (in 2009). It was a good year individually, but it wasn't something to be happy about because we didn't do anything. It's all about the team.”

“I understand I don't do this by myself,” he added. “When I won those awards (including the Lombardi Trophy) in college, I credited my teammates. Your talent shines because of the talent around you.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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