Woodley, Breaston blossom early in NFL
The Steelers knew LaMarr Woodley could get after the quarterback. The unknown after they took him in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft was how quickly Woodley would develop the pass-coverage skills that are also required to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Then came the play he made in the Steelers' first exhibition game last season.
Early in the first quarter, Woodley picked up a New Orleans Saints tight end that had dragged across the middle of the field. When he broke up a pass thrown by Drew Brees, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau turned to linebackers coach Keith Butler and said, "Eureka! We're in business."
If Woodley has been a find, the same holds true of his good friend, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Steve Breaston.
Their careers have followed parallel paths since both left the University of Michigan, and those paths will intersect on a veritable world stage.
For Woodley and Breaston, a Woodland Hills High School graduate, the one downside to reuniting in Super Bowl XLIII is this: Only one of them gets to celebrate Sunday night.
The two, who didn't win a national championship together in college, still talk regularly. And they are so close that Woodley has had a standing invite to Thanksgiving dinner at the Breaston home in North Braddock the past two years.
"He's a real honest person and a real respectful person," Woodley said of Breaston. "That's why I like him so much. He's just a real cool, laid-back guy like myself."
Opposing quarterbacks would beg to differ with Woodley that he is laid-back.
In his first season as a starter, the 6-foot-2, 265-pounder cracked double digits in sacks. He made history two weeks ago when his two sacks against the Baltimore Ravens made him the first NFL player to notch three consecutive multi-sack games in the postseason.
Woodley had been a pass-rushing terror at Michigan, but he played defensive end in college and rarely dropped back into coverage. He made a relatively seamless transition to outside linebacker and emerged as one of the stars on the NFL's No. 1 defense in only his second season.
"It's just a matter of getting reps at the position, getting reps at dropping back into coverage," Woodley said. "When you haven't had reps at it, you don't know how good you can be at something."
Few could have predicted that Breaston would be this good as a wide receiver this early in his career. He lasted until the fifth round of the 2007 draft in part because he had been overshadowed at Michigan by Braylon Edwards and Mario Manningham.
After shining as a return specialist last season — he returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown against the Steelers — Breaston has given the Cardinals another viable receiving threat to go with Pro Bowlers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
All three eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark this season, becoming just the third trio of teammates in NFL history to accomplish the feat.
"He has been a great player for them," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Breaston, "and I am not surprised. He's got great vision. He's a great open-field runner."
Breaston grew up rooting for the Steelers — "There are some Terrible Towels lying around my house," he said — and his hometown team gave him a serious look prior to the 2007 draft. While impressed with Breaston when he attended Michigan's Pro Day workout a couple of years ago, Tomlin remembers something else about his trip to Ann Arbor.
"That is the same workout when I kind of fell in love with LaMarr Woodley," Tomlin said.
Whatever love there is between Woodley and Breaston won't stop either from leveling the other if the opportunity presents itself Sunday.
And any collisions between Woodley and Breaston will be anything but personal — just the result of two close friends going for something that only one of them can have.
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