| The versatile Woodley is an ideal fit at OLB for the Steelers' 3-4 scheme.|
|Randy Litzinger/Icon SMI|
14 at Cleveland
21 at Philadelphia
29 BALTIMORE (M)
5 at Jacksonville
19 at Cincinnati
26 N.Y. GIANTS
3 at Washington (M)
16 SAN DIEGO
20 CINCINNATI (T)
30 at New England
14 at Baltimore
21 at Tennessee
|Santonio Holmes, Wide receiver: Quietly he began to emerge in 2007 as Ben Roethlisberger's best downfield alternative to Hines Ward. Entering his third season, Holmes figures to build on his breakout year, when he had a league-best 18.1 yards per catch, on 52 receptions. "I'm expecting to be more involved in the offense," he says.|
Though the defense was the NFL's best in '07, the rush is on to develop linebackers who can get to the quarterback.
A familiar face showed up at Steelers training camp this summer. Kevin Greene was an outside linebacker who teamed with Greg Lloyd to give Pittsburgh a ferocious pass rush from 1993 through '95 -- and the Steelers haven't had a consistent rush since those two left. In defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's aggressive zone-blitz scheme, there should be a lot of opportunities to drop the quarterback, but Pittsburgh's 36 sacks last year left the team in the middle of the NFL rankings.
Though they had the league's stingiest defense in yards allowed last season (266.4), and only Indianapolis (16.4) allowed fewer points per game than their 16.8, the Steelers showed some cracks. They gave up a total of 94 points in three notable late-season losses, one at New England and two at home to Jacksonville (the last a wild-card playoff). In those three games the Steelers dragged down Tom Brady and David Garrard only four times combined.
So here was Greene, in Latrobe, Pa., for a week in late July. Sacks have been an official NFL statistic since 1982, and Greene, who played 15 years with the Rams, Steelers, Panthers and 49ers before retiring after the '99 season, is third on the league's alltime list with 160. He was in camp to help coach the art of rushing from the outside linebacker spot in the 3-4, and he had two willing pupils in Pittsburgh's top selections in the 2007 draft: LaMarr Woodley, a full-time OLB, and Lawrence Timmons, who is expected to play inside and outside.
The thick-legged, 265-pound Woodley will line up over the tight end; Timmons, 234 pounds with a quick burst, will pass-rush in the nickel. Late in training camp, Timmons was in an even competition with Larry Foote for one of the inside jobs, and he'll most likely win that battle at some point this season. But for the long term the coaches envision Woodley and Timmons as their bookends on the outside. For now, on regular downs, 30-year-old James Harrison, who led the team with 8 1/2 sacks last year, will play right outside linebacker.
"Outside linebacker in the 3-4 is one of the toughest positions in football to play, because you're asked to do so much," says Greene. "You've got to play the run at the point of attack, you've got to be able to drop back and cover and you've got to be able to rush. Imagine how good a player you'd have if he covers a tight end up the seam on one play, plays the run the next and comes around the corner to the quarterback the next. That's the job."
Greene liked what he saw in Woodley. After practice one morning in Latrobe he worked with the second-year player on jabbing and punching, on different first steps to beat right tackles and on dislodging the jersey-grab of the tackles or tight ends who try to engage him. On the field, Greene told Woodley, "you've got to rush in a powerful, violent way. When he respects your violence, that opens up your speed moves."
When the Steelers lined up for a full-pad pass-rush drill that day, Woodley was opposite 315-pound right tackle Willie Colon. On the first snap Woodley bull-rushed Colon, driving him back into the passer. On the next snap Woodley deked Colon inside, then sprinted around his right shoulder to the quarterback. "That's what he'll have to do a lot in his career," says Greene. "You make the tackle expect the power, then you kill him with the speed."
"This defense is perfect for me," Woodley says. "I'm comfortable covering the tight end one play and rushing the next. And this year I know what I'm doing. I'm just reacting, not thinking then reacting."
From Nov. 9 to Dec. 7 the Steelers will face, in succession, Peyton Manning (Colts), Philip Rivers (Chargers), Carson Palmer (Bengals), Brady and Tony Romo (Cowboys). Woodley and the edge rushers had better have their techniques down by then. -- Peter King