My Take on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ $61.5 Million “Mistake”

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Part I

Why Woodley Never Should Have Been Given a non-Franchise Tender:

1. Piss Poor Super Bowl Performance and Average Performances Against Average Players

I’ll tell you one thing, watching the Super Bowl and seeing Woodley get his lunch handed to him by Rookie RT Bryan Bulaga was one of the most wretched sights these eyes have ever seen while watching a Steeler game.  Woodley did almost nothing but pull his bull-rush routine, get contained by the Packers’ O-Line in the run game, and allowed Bulaga to basically hold him in check for almost the entire game.  What should have been an enormous mismatch in favor of the Steelers turned into one of their supposedly “best players” being shackled all day by a 1st year player on the game’s biggest stage!  What made me so disgusted about Woodley’s play though is that it wasn’t the first, and it certainly hasn’t been the last time that LaMarr has been taken to school by players that are supposedly “out of his league.”

The 2011 season has been no different in terms of LaMarr being taken to school by inferior competition.  In Pittsburgh’s first three games Woodley has been stymied by the following RT’s: Sandra Bullock’s overrated protege Michael Oher, a Rookie making his 2nd start of the season in the form of James Carpenter, and Jeff Linkenbach of the Colts who is a 2nd year UDFA!  I’m sure most of you caught the stat table that flashed during last Sunday Night’s game that illustrated how much of a non-factor Woodley was as a pass rusher while facing the Colts rebuilding line.  A guy that supposedly earned a contract worth $61.5 million should theoretically be dominating guys like Linkenbach for the type of scratch that he is making!

To make matters worse, LaMarr hasn’t even been able to push the pocket whatsoever with his weak excuse for a bull rush.  Go back and watch the film folks, Woodley was downright held in check by all three of these guys so far in 2011.  Heck, in quite a few games over the previous two seasons (for the sake of brevity I won’t go into all of them) LaMarr was “The Invisible Man” out on the field in terms of his overall impact in the pass rush.  It would be one thing if he had been facing Top Tier LT’s like Chris Long, D’Brickishaw Ferguson, or Joe Thomas every week like Deebo, but he’s never had to!  All LaMarr’s “stellar” competition has to do before facing him is prepare for a bull-rush where he simply runs into the opposition and sticks to them like velcro hoping to push the pocket, you know instead of mixing it up a bit with a spin move or a speed rush.  If the opposition’s RT can stop the bull-rush, Steeler Nation can forget about any pressure coming from 56’s side all game long.

2. Playing Across From James Harrison = Inflated Statistics/Playing Second Fiddle

This is a simple fact, anybody will look good playing across from 2008 D.P.O.Y. and 4x Pro Bowler James Harrison.  While Deebo is drawing double teams and literally being held on every play on one side, Woodley is given one-on-one matchups on the other for essentially the entire game.  So much attention has to be paid to Harrison (as well as Polamalu) on every play (most notably passing downs) that Woodley is an afterthought on the Steelers Defense.  In his first 4 seasons as a starter, Deebo accumulated 45.0 sacks and done it with the opposing Offense keying on him on each and every play because he is an absolute terror and lined up on the “Blind Side” of the QB.  I feel that Woodley’s sack totals (35 from 2008-2010) and overall effectiveness are more the cause of Harrison being such a defensive force rather than LaMarr’s “greatness.”  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a decent player (don’t get me wrong Woodley is a decent player) won’t do well from time to time when left alone against some RT’s.

Sure LaMarr is a nice complement player, but if he had to go against double teams and was the main focus of the opposition’s weekly pass protection like Harrison constantly is, there is no logical/possible way that his level of play would be good enough or his stats would be as good as they have been to warrant a contract worth $61.5 million.  For example, Woodley got an almost identical contract to the K.C. Chiefs’ Tamba Hali (5 year $60 million).  However, Hali is probably the Chiefs’ most lethal pass rusher, he has played both the 4-3 End and 3-4 OLB in the N.F.L., he has played on a god-awful team for the last half decade, and opponents’ game plans are always geared to stopping him first.  Had LaMarr been “the guy,” he may have warranted the type of money (on-par with Hali’s) that he is currently receiving.  Thus, it can be argued that Woodley is simply a wealthy benefactor of James Harrison’s awesomeness.

3. OLB for the Steelers = Most Replaceable Position in Football

I lived in Denver for 9 years and I can say without a doubt that the RB in a Mike Shanahan/Gary Kubiak Offense is the most replaceable position on an N.F.L. roster.  Names like Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell, Steve Slaton, Tim Hightower, etc. all come to mind when I think of what the term “replaceable” in the N.F.L. means.  Yet running a close second in the competition for the most replaceable position in the N.F.L. is the OLB spot on the Steelers.  Don’t believe me, let’s look at the last 15 seasons alone and some names: Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, Clark Haggans.  All great, and all Pro Bowl caliber players.  But you know what?  All of these guys had stellar primes of 4-6 seasons before they either flamed out and/or were replaced by the next guy that was more talented, younger, and cheaper.  To their credit, the Steelers have been (and still are) a “Linebacker Factory.”  As a franchise they just pump out different Pro Bowlers like the ones I listed above out every few seasons at OLB.  Sure the players need raw talent to begin with, but the coaching of D.C. Dick LeBeau and LB’s Coach Keith Butler is so fantastic that they really have a knack at molding solid players at those positions.

Woodley is now entering the 5th of his career.  And although he has performed adequately and made himself a Pro Bowl during his time in the Steel City, his efforts over the last season and a half indicate that he is on the decline in terms of his stats and his complete level of play and pass rushing ability as well (11.5 sacks 2008, 13.5 sacks 2009, 10.0 sacks 2010).  Let’s take a look at Woodley’s performance over just this season’s first 3 weeks.  For those of you that point to his supposedly gaudy 1.5 sacks that he has accumulated thus far in 2011, let me let you in on a little secret:  They were not the result of LaMarr downright beating/overpowering his man to the QB!  Flacco ate it in Week 1 and LaMarr got a coverage sack after Borat acted intelligently with a 20+ point lead and took the sack.  Then in Week 2, Woodley came unmolested to the QB and chipped in on a sack with backup DL Steve McLendon.  It’s really not like Woodley made any sort of Pro Bowl play or gave any sort of Pro Bowl effort in either circumstance.

I truly doubt that backup Jason Worilds could be possibly as ineffective at rushing the QB as Woodley has been so far 2011.  Really take a look at Worilds from that Miami game last year when he filled in for an injured LaMarr, and you’ll be able to see was a speed demon off the edge.  Jason attacked Chad Henne like a banshee on passing downs, and displayed great hustle on Miami’s final drive by not giving up on blitzes where he was pushed wide (unlike Woodley) and forced an errant throw by Henne to win the game.  I understand that Worilds is a bit raw against the run, but he could have easily stepped in for Woodley this year or in 2012 and given a serviceable effort while honing his skills on the fly and wreaking havoc on opposing OT’s with his speed.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that N.F.L. is a business more than anything.  The Steelers (probably more than any team since the F.A. period started) have always been smart about understanding the value of their players and then getting the most out of them before letting them walk in Free Agency.  It’s just a shame that they may have made a colossal mistake by over-paying for one of their most replaceable players.

4. Woodley Doesn’t Add any Versatility to the Defense

I hate to use such a cliche, but LaMarr Woodley is basically a “one-trick pony” for this Steelers Defense with what he brings to the table compared to his other teammates.  LaMarr doesn’t occupy a position as important as the two-gap responsible Defensive Lineman (NT or DE) that holds firm in the run game and pushes the pocket if need be.  Nor does LaMarr have anywhere near the versatility of a Troy Polamalu or a LB like Lawrence Timmons.  Moreover, LaMarr definitely isn’t the most important player/the only one with significant talent on his unit (Ike Taylor).  In fact, Woodley really only has one marketable skill that he brings to the Steelers’ Defense, and it was supposedly the reason why he earned his gargantuan contract: Rushing the Passer.

Woodley certainly can’t cover any RB or TE, and his weaknesses as a pass defender have illustrated themselves time and time again in his 3+ seasons as a starter.  You can’t ask him to cover an Antonio Gates like a Lawrence Timmons can.  Shoot you can’t even ask him to cover a guy like Dennis Pitta!  Woodley’s struggles against the run have begun to surface over the last few seasons as well.  In 2009 opponents began to run unbalanced lines and run the ground game right at him, and they really had a measure of success because of Woodely’s (still) sub-par ability to shed blocks.  Woodley’s inadequacies to play the run were none more evident than in Super Bowl XLV when the Packers just ran right at him and had probably the most success against the Steelers’ Defense on the ground than any opponent had all season.  LaMarr’s speed is also an issue in the run game, because he is not nearly as quick as Harrison and has difficulty running plays down from behind that go to the left.  All Woodley could/can bring to the table for the Steelers is his pass rush ability.  But now that he has been struggling to get to the QB, what does he really bring to the Defense?

5. Money Was Most Importantly Needed Elsewhere

This is by far the biggest reason why the Steelers should not have given Woodley such a lucrative long term deal.  To be perfectly blunt, the Steelers’ O-Line is downright pathetic, arguably one of the worst in the League, and has been in need of significant upgrades over the last half decade.  Had Woodley been franchised, about $51.5 million dollars would have been available for the Steelers to hit the market in Free Agency and sign a litany of players that could have come in and instantly upgraded the Offensive Line.  Sadly for Offensive Line Coach Sean Kugler, his (and Big Ben’s) needs were ignored by the F.O. so they could front money to Woodley, and Kugler was left with the same crap that he had to use last season.  Oh wait, no he wasn’t.  Kugler saw his starting LT in Max Starks and RT in Flozell Adams released because the Steelers F.O. thought were “too expensive” and not as vital to the Steelers’ success as “The Tubby Bull-rusher.”

At least Starks (who was injury prone so I can give the F.O. a pass) and Adams could protect Ben when he dropped back to pass.  You know, unlike that massive pansy Jonathan Scott who got injured last Sunday after getting literally pancaked by Dwight Freeney in a game where he was mercilessly abused in pass protection.  I don’t want to hear a single person tell me that upgrades weren’t needed on the O-Line this past offseason because that is an utter and complete farce.  If you took a polygraph test and answered a question with “no, the Steelers O-Line doesn’t need upgrades,” the machine would explode due to your ridiculous lie!  It was complete and total hubris on the F.O.’s and Coaching Staff’s part to think that just because the team went to the Super Bowl last season with Jonathan Scott at LT, that Jonathan Scott would be an adequate answer at LT for the 2011 season.  Because the F.O. has not invested in the positions properly, the Steelers have had spare (and injured) parts starting at LG and RG over the last half decade.  Had Rookies Marcus Gilbert and Pro Bowl Center Maurkice Pouncey not acclimated themselves to the pros the way they have so far and gone above and beyond the call of duty, the O-Line would be in even worse shape than it is now!