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Driven by disrespect, Steelers' Woodley emerging as an elite OLB

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Mike Fabus / Associated Press
Steelers OLB LaMarr Woodley has 25 sacks in the last two years, which ranks fifth in the NFL during that span.


Pop quiz: Name the only two players in the NFL to post at least 11.5 sacks in each of the last two seasons.

Okay, so the headline here pretty much gives away at least one of the two, so I decided to ask Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley himself if he knew the answer.

"It's got to be me and (Cowboys OLB) DeMarcus Ware," declared Woodley, who took time to chat on the phone at halftime of Tuesday night's Celtics-Magic NBA playoff game.

So I told him that it was, in fact, Jared Allen who was the other player besides him to do so.

"Oh, damn," Woodley said. "Man, I should have known that! I should know that."

That mistake notwithstanding, Woodley is becoming acutely aware of his place in the game as he enters his fourth NFL season. Largely overshadowed by other ends and outside linebackers, Woodley has quietly been one of the league's most impactful defenders the past two years. He's a star just coming into his own as he continues to master the shuffle from college defensive end to outside linebacker in Pittsburgh's complex 3-4 defense.

While acclaim has followed others, like Woodley's teammate on the other side, James Harrison, or other pass rush specialists such as Terrell Suggs, Allen, and Ware, Woodley has toiled in relative anonymity since being selected 46th overall out of Michigan in 2007. If he puts up another season like he has the past two years, that will change.

"Personally, I don't feel like people have given me the respect that I deserve," Woodley said.

Woodley, 25, spent most of his rookie season as a reserve, trying to make the adjustment to his new position. Even so, as he pointed out, he still produced "four sacks in just 80 snaps" and also recorded two sacks in a playoff game against Jacksonville. In 2008, he busted out with 11.5 sacks, cracking the top 10 in the league, then notched six more in the postseason as the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII. Woodley got off to a slow start last year but rallied to finish with 13.5 sacks, setting a franchise record with at least a half sack in eight straight games and compiling 11.5 sacks during the streak.

Woodley has started just 31 career games but already has 29 sacks (Julius Peppers, by comparison, had 30 sacks in 44 starts during his first three seasons). Over the past two seasons, only four players -- Ware (31), Allen (30), Joey Porter (26.5) and Harrison (26) -- have more sacks than Woodley, who has proven to be strong against the run, as well. He tied for the NFL lead with 19 tackles for loss in 2009.

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Woodley has become accustomed to being overlooked, but by no means does he relish it.

"I'm definitely motivated, and in this game, with anybody, you get respect when it's earned," Woodley said. "And I feel like I've earned my respect, but people find a way to not give it to me. I wouldn't be talking about it if you didn't ask me, and not to come off as a cocky person, but it was the same thing coming out of college. I was drafted in the second round because I was too slow to play outside linebacker and too short to play end, but I won every award you could win coming out of Michigan ...

"Coming into my second year, people were worried about me moving to outside linebacker and taking (then Steelers OLB) Clark Haggans' spot, but ever since I got on the other side of James Harrison -- not to take anything away from Clark Haggans -- but he's been getting double-digit sacks."

Woodley also operates within a different version of the 3-4 than many other elite pass rushers. Besides run responsibilities, he also is thrust into coverage with much more regularity, covering speedy receivers at times in the zone-blitz scheme.

"People don't look at how many times I drop back in coverage," Woodley said, "and compare those numbers to Suggs, Ware, (Elvis) Dumervil, (Shawne) Merriman. Look at those outside linebackers and see how many times I drop back. I might be dropping back more than actually rushing. The numbers might be ridiculous if I only dropped back as much as they do."

Woodley says getting comfortable in coverage was his biggest challenge, but he believes he has progressed well in that regard. "I'm not nervous when I'm in coverage," Woodley said. "I'm confident. I'm like, 'I'm going to lock this guy down.'"




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Eventually, the Steelers are going to have lock up Woodley long-term, as he is playing in the final year of his rookie contract, set to earn $550,000 in 2010. Traditionally, the Steelers would extend his deal with a year remaining, but the limitations of the 30-percent rule and uncertainty about the CBA make the situation unique.

With Ben Roethlisberger facing his issues, Santonio Holmes gone, Harrison now 32, and strong safety Troy Polamalu coming off a season basically lost to injury (he missed 11 games), Woodley could be emerging as a face-of-the-franchise-type player.

"I haven't played my best football yet, that's the thing," Woodley said." I know that I haven't played my best yet. What people see now, I've only been playing linebacker for three years. I played defensive end my whole life. When I really catch on to it, it's really going to be trouble."

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