Commentary

Woodley proves prophetic for Pittsburgh

Updated: February 2, 2009, 7:41 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

LaMar WoodleyChris McGrath/Getty ImagesLaMarr Woodley made good on his promise of a title to Steelers owner Dan Rooney.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Several hours before the start of Super Bowl XLIII, Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley passed Dan Rooney in the team hotel and offered this salient comment to the Steelers' chairman.

"I hope you've been lifting weights lately," Woodley said to Rooney on Sunday morning. "Loosen up that right arm. You're going to be lifting the [Super Bowl] trophy tonight."

Hours later, Woodley made good on that promise, playing a monster game as the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, a record sixth championship for the team.

In the Steelers' 27-23 victory over the pesky Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night at Raymond James Stadium, Woodley totaled four tackles, including one stop for a loss. He also had both of Pittsburgh's sacks against Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, including the final sack of the game, on which he secured the victory by stripping the football. Defensive end Brett Keisel recovered the fumble for the Steelers with just five seconds to play.

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In just his first season as a starter, Woodley proved to be the perfect complement to linebacker James Harrison, the NFL's defensive player of the year. Woodley had 12.5 sacks during the regular season and two in each of Pittsburgh's three playoff victories. In the Super Bowl, he rushed relentlessly, putting pressure on Warner throughout the game.

The former Michigan standout benefited greatly from Harrison's presence. The Cardinals frequently slid their pass protection toward Harrison, who had arguably the biggest defensive play in Pittsburgh history -- a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown to stave off Arizona on the final play of the first half.

"With those two guys, you've got to choose your poison," inside linebacker James Farrior said of the Steelers' two outside pass-rushers. "It's hard to block both of them. It's almost impossible."

Rather than use Harrison to blitz, the Steelers often dropped him off into pass coverage. It was a strategy that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau had used in the team's divisional-round playoff victory over San Diego. Harrison had hinted at the tactic early in the week when he'd confessed to the media that he would be used in pass coverage more often in the Super Bowl.

As usual, LeBeau conjured up a winning strategy.

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The Arizona offensive line devoted much of its attention to Harrison, and Woodley frequently found a clean path to Warner. The second-year pro was in the Cardinals' backfield much of the evening.

There are no unsung heroes when a team wins the Super Bowl. But Woodley, who often was overshadowed by Harrison during the season, came close. On Sunday, Woodley had a sack, two quarterback hurries and a pass defensed and drew a holding call, before forcing the critical fumble on his second sack at the end of the game.

"We go for the strip," Woodley said. "I saw Warner moving with the ball; I felt I could get to him and still go for the football. When I saw the ball on the ground, my first thought was, 'Get up and find the ball.' Then I saw Brett fall on it, and I knew the game was over. What a great feeling -- to know we are the world champions, and that I played a big role."

Woodley is typical of the kind of player Pittsburgh drafts to play linebacker. He was an undersized defensive end at Michigan but always a great outside pass-rusher. After playing mostly as a nickel defender during his rookie season, Woodley moved into Pittsburgh's starting lineup in 2008.

He plays with a big motor and seems to be always moving forward, toward the pocket. He is a natural rusher with unusual leverage -- strengths that play well in LeBeau's tenacious 3-4 formation, the NFL's best defense this past season.

"You're judged by how you finish," Woodley said. "People compare us to the great Steel Curtain defenses of the past. But those defenses won Super Bowls. If we had lost this game, it wouldn't have mattered that we were the No. 1 defense. People would have forgotten."

Thanks in large part to Woodley's efforts, Pittsburgh fans won't have to forget. The Pittsburgh scheme, in which outside linebackers typically line up in defensive end stances on third downs, is well suited to Woodley's skill set. Woodley has found a home with Harrison, and Sunday evening, he proved himself as a prognosticator, too.

"I promised Mr. Rooney we would do this," he said. "I'm a lot of things. And being a man of my word is one of them."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.