Week 15 Pregame Focus: Steelers need production from LaMarr Woodley against Cowboys


Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley returns to the field for the first time since Week 12, having missed a third of the Steelers' last 30 games. He owes this defense an outstanding performance against Dallas.

Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley is back and he'll play Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.

Hearing Woodley will play is almost as common as hearing he won't. Having missed a third of the Steelers' last 30 games (spanning back to Week 8 of the 2011 season), Woodley hasn't gotten himself back to the point he was at when he injured his hamstring for the first time while chasing New England's Tom Brady out of the pocket (again) in the Steelers' Week 8 win over the Patriots last year.

He had two sacks in that game, was on his way to a third, and was tied among the top sack artists in the league when he went down.

The Steelers simply have not gotten the kind of pass rush they had when they went to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2010 season - incidentally, that was also the last time they played in Dallas. The on-again-off-again nature of both Woodley and James Harrison have been the cause of a lot of that, but they're both healthy today, and facing a team that wants to throw the ball despite not being the greatest pass protection unit in the league.

Woodley absolutely has to win his 1-on-1 today. Throw out the contract, he has to dominate his position because he can, and his team needs him to dominate it. Cowboys right tackle Doug Free has struggled this season, and appears to handle bullrushing ends and outside linebackers with a high technique. That's something Woodley can exploit

Despite the game's average sized tackle still outweighing Woodley by a good 60 pounds, Woodley's size and power wears most of them down to the point he can exploit their weaknesses in the second half. If the Steelers can keep this close through the first three quarters, Woodley will have the situation he wants - a worn down tackle being the only thing standing between him and the quarterback.

He needs to make plays today. If he can do that, the Steelers have just as good a chance of winning this game as anyone would.

The defensive scheme the Steelers employ can crush one-dimensional offenses like Dallas. Even with outstanding weapons like Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, it's hard for teams to move the ball consistently against them. Coming off a week in which the Steelers allowed their opponents to move the ball, they still allowed under 300 total yards, and Phillip Rivers became the eighth straight quarterback to fail to throw for more than 200 yards (he hit 200 on the button).

And it was a bad game for the Steelers' defense.

Expect Romo to attack the Steelers much in the same way Rivers did; short, quick and rhythmic. Woodley, as well as right defensive end Ziggy Hood, need to squeeze their side of the pocket, get their hands in passing lanes and try to contain Romo. More than anything, though, they need to find a way to get him on the ground or at least force him to throw off-balance.

It's a huge game for Woodley in terms of his value on this team. He owes this defense a big game, considering they've done well without him. It's time for him to take over, and get back on the path he was on toward becoming one of the best defensive players in the game.

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