PITTSBURGH -- Al Woods has been a serviceable backup defensive lineman the past couple years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but in his fourth NFL season Woods might be ready to take his game to another level.
Woods played considerably for injured starting nose tackle Steve McLendon last week at Cleveland, and he is expected to be the starter for the Steelers (5-6) against the Baltimore Ravens (5-6) Thanksgiving night at 8:30 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Md.
"Steve McLendon has a right ankle sprain, (and) he will miss this game on a short week,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We'll see if he is available to us next week. ... We expect Brett Keisel to work this week with an eye toward participation. Obviously, I thought (Woods) was a positive contributor to our efforts. I think maybe he had a couple sacks.
"Al has played a contributing role to our efforts largely throughout the season. He's played in just about every football game, getting 10-12 snaps per game. Hopefully, he'll be ready for the extended action that comes with having an opportunity to step up. In terms of making a decision of who will play for Steve, that hasn't been done yet. We haven't come together yet.''
While Woods is the obvious choice, Tomlin noted, there are other choices. That's especially the case if Keisel can play. Then, Ziggy Hood's participation could be as a nose tackle and end. Woods' production in a limited role has been better than Hood and McLendon, who have played extensively comparatively.
Against the Browns, Woods tallied four total tackles, including three solo, two sacks, another stop behind the line and two quarterback pressures. The 6-foot-4, 307-pound Woods has played in all 11 games for the Steelers and has 10 total tackles with seven solo, two sacks and two quarterback pressures.
"I probably won't know until game time, so I'll just do like I do every week and practice like I'm going to be the starter,'' Woods said. "My first career start would mean a lot, but I'm just trying to focus in on the Ravens and what they're trying to do and playing to the best of my ability. And we'll see what happens when the time comes.''
Cam Heyward, a backup defensive end much of the season, has started the past seven games and flourished with the additional playing time. He believed the same would be true for Woods.
"I think he'll be fine,'' Heyward said. "He's gotten a lot of reps in practice. He's got a chance to make the most out of his reps, and we have full confidence in him. He's a big, strong guy, and he'll really help our defense. Either he's taken reps at end or on the nose, and I think he's gotten a lot better over the past few weeks. And this year, he's been a key contributor for us.''
It's going to be a big jump for Woods, going from 10-12 snaps per game to 40-50, but he was confident that he could get the job done.
"I prepare by eating right, doing a lot of cardio, drinking fluids and just being prepared,'' Woods said. "If your body's right and you have the right mindset, then you can go out and play and not have to worry about anything. ... My thoughts, to be quite honest, was that maybe they saw something in me and felt I was better off on the nose. So, I just took it and ran with it.
"And I tried to get comfortable with whatever they asked me to do. I feel really good about things right now. Steve McLendon and all the guys in front of me are really good guys. We work out together and help each other with everything. So, I'm trying to learn as much as possible and become the best player I can be. They don't want me to be too nervous.
"If I do that I won't be able to let my abilities show and do things the right way,'' Woods added. "If I'm thinking too much out there, I won't be able to perform at a high level. And that's what I'm trying to do, elevate my play and do whatever I can to help the Steelers win games. Everything that has happened so far, it just humbles me and makes me want to strive for more.''
And with someone as versatile as Woods, the Steelers likely will reap the benefits of his hard work.
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- Polamalu named AFC Defensive Player of the Week
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- Nose tackle depth, lack of prep time, advantage for Steelers
- Dick LeBeau: Ray Rice is one of the best backs who ever played
- Steelers Injury Report: Keisel, Thomas practice fully, not Woodley