It's not really my style to be negative, and I'm certainly not one to single out anybody. I'm going to make an exception though here, and perhaps on several other occasions this week. It would be hard to justify feeling too upbeat at this point in time in the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2011 NFL season.
If you've read Behind the Steel Curtain for any length of time, you are well aware that I was not in favor of the Steelers re-signing LaMarr Woodley to a long-term deal. I honestly thought that they would not do so dating back to well over a year ago. Too expensive for a guy whose body type I did not think would age well. My thought was that at least the second half of whatever contract he signed would be a waste of money. I did not however figure that he'd play so poorly in year one of the deal while still 26 years of age.
Woodley's six-year $61.5 million dollar deal made him the highest paid defensive player in Steelers history. Now, it's worth noting that we're going to continue saying that phrase time and time again in future years. Each new free agency period is going to usher in new mega-deals that are the 'highest ever' in some category. That's the reality of the NFL's still ongoing meteoric growth.
Still, is it just me, or does it not sit quite right that a fairly one-dimensional player was made the highest paid defensive player in team history? Woodley, to his immense credit, has great hands and sound instincts in the passing game. You can't say that about too many dudes his size. That said, he's not fast enough to where those traits come into play all that often in the high-speed National Football League. I'll need to look at the game again to find the exact play, but a fairly nondescript dump off to I believe Arian Foster in the Texans win hammers home my point. Woodley flat out couldn't get outside fast enough to track whoever it was down before the play turned into a positive gain. James Harrison hunts that play down. Even with a bad back at 33 years of age. Woodley is unable to in his physical prime at 26.
I don't want to get sidetracked with an analysis of his Week 4 performance because it was definitely not terrible. He was pretty good in run support in the third quarter in particular. Of course, as the picture above shows, he was responsible for not only taking a bad angle to Foster on the long touchdown run that gave Houston a 17-10 lead after the Steelers had stormed back in the third quarter, he also wiped out the last line of defense on the play, Troy Polamalu. No. 43 had a sub-standard game himself in terms of taking good angles to the ball, but at the risk of sounding overly simplistic, I have never seen Harrison make those types of mistakes, and I quite simply expect more from such a highly paid star player.
Forget this play or that play though this past four weeks. It's not about that. It's about needing Woodley to be great right now. We haven't gotten that. With Harrison still rounding into shape, the offense struggling for a myriad reasons, veterans like Aaron Smith and James Farrior showing their age -- we've needed Woodley to come up big. Still waiting.
And by the way, another popular argument is Woodley is struggling because of Aaron Smith' shortcomings. There's definitely some truth in that, at least in the running game. Two things though. One, remember the Indianapolis game when Harrison dismissed Dallas Clark easily, stood up an offensive tackle and stopped Joseph Addai in his tracks on one of the Colts' patented stretch-run plays? Harrison did that several times against the Colts. That was a single guy making a play by himself; not needing help in front of him. The great players find ways to do that. Secondly, Woodley is not being double-teamed in pass protection. He shouldn't need Smith doing anything extraordinary in order to get in the face of the quarterback more frequently than he has. Period.
It's of course way too early to even think about labeling the re-signing as 'smart' or 'dumb'. Kevin Colbert and the front office have a rich history of making prudent decisions in free agency.
That said, I really do wonder if the decision might have been partly influenced by the fact that so many of Woodley's defensive teammates were aging. In other words, I wonder if the front office felt they had to lock up one of their young defensive starters since so many other men on Dick LeBeau's defense were in the twilight of their careers.
I've heard some of you say, 'he's always a slow starter.' Not really true. That was only true in 2009 when he had 0 sacks through the first four games, followed by a two-sack performance in Week 5, and then another three-game sackless streak before getting hot down the stretch when it was too little too late. His production in 2008 and 2010 was distributed fairly evenly over the course of the season.
It's true that Woodley has saved some of his best football for the playoffs, but no time to be thinking about that right now. Instead, it'd be nice for the highest paid defensive player on the team to start taking over some games single-handedly. We've seen James Harrison do it time and time again in recent years; same with Troy Polamalu.
Time for Woodley to take it upon himself to turn a game in the Steelers favor with a stellar performance. God knows the team needs it. And for a guy making $18 million this year, it shouldn't be all that unreasonable to expect.