Back in the 2008 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers rode a historically good defense all the way to a Super Bowl victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Tampa, Florida. The Steelers had 20 interceptions that season, 12 forced fumbles and 51 sacks as Dick LeBeau led maybe the best defense he has ever coached. Fast forward four years, and the Steelers have five interceptions, 18 sacks and nine forced fumbles through 10 games. In fact, this defense is made up primarily of pieces that finished last season with just 11 interceptions, 35 sacks and 10 forced fumbles.
Lebeau’s defense in 2008 relied on players such as Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor, Lawrence Timmons, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel. Each of those players remain on the roster today, while Aaron Smith, James Farrior, William Gay and Bryant McFadden were all starters who have moved on. While each of those players played outstanding football during the year, it was two stars in particular who made the defense so much better than it’s competitors.
As a first year starter, LaMarr Woodley joined James Harrison to form the most disruptive defensive duo in the whole league. The Steelers’ starting outside linebackers combined for 27.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles and two interceptions on the season. Statistically they jumped off the charts, but even more impressive was their consistent play on the field. Teams feared passing the ball against the Steelers because Harrison and Woodley simply couldn’t be stopped. When games were played in Heinz Field, most teams completely altered their approach and played with a very short passing game that got the ball out of their quarterback’s hands almost instantly on every snap. Whenever they held the ball, Woodley or Harrison inevitably forced them to make uncomfortable throws or get sacked.
Back then if either linebacker was left against a tight end or a running back, or even a combination of the two, they inevitably finished the play in the backfield. Harrison picked up the defensive player of the year for his efforts, while Woodley was playing on a level that saw him named as an all-pro in his first full season starting. The defense as a whole ranked first in points allowed, yards allowed and passing yards allowed, while being second overall against the run, largely because of the pressure the two outside linebackers were applying from week-to-week. Of the 14 games both players started in during the regular season, only four times did neither have a sack. On three occasions they accounted for four sacks together, once they had a combined 3.5 and in one game, three.
LeBeau’s defense is based on pressure. So it is no surprise that the Steelers as a team are at their best when Woodley and Harrison are at their best. Pressure leads to turnovers. Without that pressure, the turnovers don’t come. This year, Woodley and Harrison have combined for six sacks, one forced fumble and one interception. Injuries have been an issue, but on-field performance has been a greater issue. The Steelers are containing teams, so much so that they are a top ranked defense in all the major statistical categories, but they are not forcing enough turnovers or making enough of what Mike Tomlin calls splash plays.
In 2008, the duo were the difference in a three point game at home against the Baltimore Ravens, when they combined for four sacks, two forced fumbles and a touchdown. In fact, whenever the Steelers’ defense had to step up in 2008 to decide a football game, it did. More often than not, Woodley and Harrison were at the heart of it. Woodley had two sacks in each of his playoff appearances that year, while Harrison applied the pressure on Joe Flacco that forced him to throw a game sealing interception to Polamalu in the divisional round. Harrison followed that up with a 100-yard interception return in the playoffs, before Woodley fittingly sacked Kurt Warner to bring the game to a close.
While both have endured health issues, and Harrison is now at the tail end of his career, the expectations for outside linebackers in Pittsburgh, and especially these two, never change. Without their starting quarterback, but even if they did have Ben Roethlisberger also, the Steelers will need their two star linebackers to return to dominant form if they are to be relevant in this season’s post-season.
You can follow Cian on twitter @Cianaf