During the week of a Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers matchup, the media is inevitably engulfed in the storylines of the two AFC North teams. There is no shortage of storylines for reporters to talk about as key players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Ray Lewis, Troy Polamalu, Willie Colon and Antonio Brown all have various injury issues that have put them in the news. However, one overlooked aspect of this week’s coverage has been the exclusion of LaMarr Woodley from the starting lineup. Woodley is injured again and will be replaced by Jason Worilds.
It is somewhat ironic that Worilds is starting this game because of an injury to a teammate, because his whole career so far has continually stuttered because of injury after injury. Even during this, his third and best season, he entered the year dealing with a wrist injury that cost him training camp and much of the preseason. Since then though, despite starting just one game, Worilds has performed well in mostly limited roles from week to week–so much so that he leads the team in sacks with five.
Woodley, a player who has also struggled with various injuries over the past two years, has only managed four sacks in 10 starts. He is a veteran player who has been a starter for five seasons. During the four seasons preceding this one, he has never had less than nine sacks in the regular season. In fact, those nine sacks came last year, when he only played in 10 games. Throughout his career, it hasn’t just been about sacking the quarterback for Woodley. He has been a consistently disruptive player in the passing game who couldn’t be blocked with just one player while dominating in the running game.
This year hasn’t resembled the past. Whether he has suffered from the effects of missing so much time with injuries or he simply is starting to lose impact, he is now 28 years of age. As he grows older, Woodley has been a periphery figure on a Steelers defense that has performed well for the most part. A lack of energy and urgency has overcome his play. He doesn’t look any heavier than he has in the past–from the eyeball test at least–but his explosion is no longer the same in tight and his acceleration is almost non existent coming off the edge.
It is telling that Woodley only has 29 tackles on the season. Tackles aren’t always the best way of understanding a player’s impact, but for Woodley it has signified how little he has been involved this year. He has just 29 combined tackles in 10 games. Last year he had only 39, but they also came in just 10 games, while his first three seasons saw him average over 57 tackles per season or 3.7 per game. Worilds has 20 tackles this season on 269 snaps while Woodley’s snap count works out to 460. That means Worilds is averaging a tackle every 13.45 snaps and a sack every 22.2 pass rushes. Woodley, on the other hand, gets a tackle every 15.86 snaps and a sack every 43.75 pass rushes.
Statistics can’t completely be trusted, especially not on the defensive side of the football, but Worilds’ activity level has been significantly higher than Woodley’s this season. Maybe it’s a case that Woodley is being double teamed while Worilds is not? It’s possible, but it hasn’t been raised as an issue this year nor has it appeared on the eye test. Maybe Worilds is taking advantage against weaker opposition? Worilds sacked Peyton Manning in Week 1, Michael Vick in Week 5, Matt Hasselbeck in Week 6 and beat impressive rookie Mitchell Schwartz of the Cleveland Browns twice last week. Woodley sacked Mark Sanchez in Week 2, Carson Palmer in Week 3, Eli Manning in Week 9 and Joe Flacco in Week 11.
On the whole, it appears that the Steelers will be better off with Worilds in the starting lineup, even though he isn’t receiving the same level of attention as others this week.
Cian Fahey writes for RantSports, the Guardian, FootballGuys and Irishcentral. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf.