Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin remains convinced linebacker LaMarr Woodley is an impact player when healthy.
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"He’s been solid," Tomlin said. "Not only this season but over the course of his career."
Here’s something else Woodley has become: injury prone.
The Steelers placed Woodley on injured reserve Tuesday with a strained right calf, ending Woodley’s season and perhaps his time patrolling the left side of Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense. He limped off the field in the first quarter of Sunday’s 30-20 win over Cincinnati and did not return.
Tomlin ruled Woodley out of this weekend’s game at Green Bay. With Pittsburgh (6-8) all but out of the playoff picture, the team moved Woodley to IR later to the day to give the club some roster flexibility. Pittsburgh signed journeyman linebacker Jamaal Westerman to take Woodley’s spot on the 53-man roster, though quickly improving Jason Worilds will start in Woodley’s place against the Packers (7-6-1).
Woodley is in the third year of a six-year, $61.5 million contract he signed in August, 2011. The 29-year-old is scheduled to be Pittsburgh’s second-highest paid player next season behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, with a salary cap hit of $13.59 million. Considering the team’s significant cap issues, the emergence of Worilds and rookie Jarvis Jones and Woodley’s spotty healthy history, he could be expendable by the summer.
It’s a path that seemed unthinkable three years ago. Woodley appeared to be the next great Steelers linebacker after racking up 35 sacks from 2008-10, helping lead Pittsburgh two a pair of AFC championships and one Super Bowl title.
The day he signed his extension in 2011, Woodley talked at length about wanting "to leave my stamp when I’m done playing here."
His work is only half finished. Woodley hasn’t played a full 16-game schedule since 2010. He missed six games in 2011 and three more in 2012 with hamstring issues. He appeared back to his usual self early this season, recording a sack in four straight games at one point.
It all changed during a 23-10 win over Buffalo last month, when he tweaked his left calf. Despite saying repeatedly he felt optimistic about his chances, he spent three weeks on the sideline watching Worilds flourish in his absence.
Considered on the way out after the Steelers chose Jones in the first round of last April’s draft, Worilds instead has blossomed. Following a slow start, he played so well the Steelers decided to make Jones a role player while giving Worilds the bulk of the playing time at right outside linebacker. Worilds moved to the left side, where he played in college, after Woodley went down and his production has skyrocketed.
Worilds leads the Steelers with 7.0 sacks and has evolved into more than just a pass rush specialist. When Woodley returned against Miami two weeks ago, the Steelers actually moved him to the right side for the first time in his career so Worilds could continue to work on the left side.
Though he will be a free agent after the season, Worilds won’t come close to commanding the kind of money Woodley will be due if Woodley stays on the roster in 2014. Throw in the team’s significant investment in Jones and Woodley could be part of a sizable roster makeover in the offseason if the Steelers miss the playoffs for the second straight year.
While Tomlin agreed Jones needs to work on his upper body strength to deal with left tackles who outweigh him by 50 pounds or more, Tomlin is pleased with Jones’ progress. Jones has just one sack but has shown an ability to get around the ball. He batted down a Cincinnati 2-point conversion attempt last week, keeping the Bengals two scores behind.
"Although his numbers might not be jumping off the page at you, I really think that he’s settling in and playing harder and faster and displaying understanding at an increased rate every week," Tomlin said. "I think that’s an element of playing well and producing plays. You’ve got to know what to do."
NOTES: Tomlin said defensive end Brett Keisel, who has missed four of the last five games with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, will "definitely" practice on Thursday and could play against the Packers. …. Nose tackle Steve McLendon, who has sat out the last two games with an ankle injury, is also expected to practice at some point.