by Doug Farrar
Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker LaMarr Woodley
Baltimore Ravens 14 at Pittsburgh Steelers 23 (AFC Championship)
Here's an interesting question: Who leads the Pittsburgh Steelers in sacks this postseason? If you guessed Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, you would be wrong. It's Harrison's bookend, left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who has four sacks (two against the Chargers in the divisional round, two against the Ravens in the championship game) to Harrison's one. Was Woodley a beneficiary of offenses sliding to protect themselves against Harrison? You may look at Woodley's 11.5 sacks in the regular season and wonder, but the truth is that Woodley brings more than just sacks to the game; he's a complete linebacker who can bring trouble in many different ways.
Though his sacks came in the third and fourth quarters against Baltimore, Woodley did most of his damage against the Ravens early on. He spent the first few minutes engaging Ravens right tackle Willie Anderson with simple pushes or spin moves, or dropping into coverage. Halfway through the first quarter, the Ravens had third-and-8 at their own 29. The Steelers had four at the line and dropped two defenders back at the snap. Woodley careened in from the defensive left side, with an unidentified defender directly to his left (this may have been cornerback Bryant McFadden; there was only one quick aerial view of that side) dropping back as Woodley brought pressure. Woodley beat Anderson and pressured Joe Flacco into a pass to the other side to Derrick Mason that cornerback DeShea Townsend jumped for an interception. Of course, that sort of defensive confusion is the hallmark of Dick LeBeau, and it worked like a charm that time.
On the first play of Baltimore's next drive, with 6:06 left in the first quarter, the Steelers had six up front, with cornerback William Gay blitzing outside Woodley. As Gay crashed in, Woodley dropped back again, which allowed him to read the handoff to Willis McGahee, sift through various Ravens, and help Casey Hampton with the tackle after a 4-yard gain. Another hallmark of the LeBeau defense: No matter how many guys are pinning their ears back, the Steelers rarely lose contain at or near the line.
On third-and-6 two plays later, Woodley provided another drive-stopping pressure. From the left of a four-man line, Woodley spun one way, then another on Anderson as Flacco ran around, trying to buy time for a big play. Eventually, the rookie wandered a little too close into Mr. Woodley's Neighborhood, and the pressure forced a long overthrow to Mason. In this game, the Steelers had an immaculate sense of the proper balance between pressure and coverage. Flacco either had time and nobody open, or no time to look for the open man. Early on, Baltimore's receivers were spinning through a maze.
As the first quarter ended and the second quarter began, Woodley displayed his run-stopping acumen, first on a third-and-1 from the Pittsburgh 34 with 1:20 left in the opening quarter. The Ravens went with their unbalanced line to the right side, with extra tackle Jared Gaither outside Anderson and tight end Todd Heap outside Gaither, leaving four blockers right of center. After Mason went right to left on an end-around fake, Flacco handed the ball to McGahee, who tried to bust outside to the right. Woodley spun out of Heap's block and maintained a wall of which he might not have been aware. With his back turned to the action, Woodley forced McGahee back and away from the first down. Three drive-killing plays in one quarter? To paraphrase Bill Lumbergh, I'm gonna go ahead and ... uhhh ... say that's ... pretty acceptable. Flacco tried a sneak up the middle on fourth-and-1, but Casey Hampton and Troy Polamalu had other ideas. Baltimore finished the first quarter with no first downs in four drives -- an amazing feat for the Pittsburgh defense.
The Ravens got another shot with 13:53 left in the first half, and Woodley was on point right from the start. McGahee headed right out of an offset-I handoff from the Baltimore 12, and Heap blocked Woodley inside just long enough for his running back to make the turn, But Woodley disengaged and followed McGahee down the right sideline, stopping him after a 9-yard gain. Was Heap doing more than blocking at the start of the play? Inconclusive. There was no flag, so I guess we'll go with that. Gaither was busted for offensive offside on the next play, and Woodley combined with Farrior to stop McGahee for a gain of three on second-and-5. The Ravens motored downfield on an 11-play drive, but stalled and punted from the Pittsburgh 46.
Late in the third quarter, Woodley got the first of his two quarterback takedowns. On second-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 49, 2:23 left in the third, and the score 16-7 in the Steelers' favor, the Ravens lined up twins right, with Lorenzo Neal in motion from left to right, giving an H-back look. Anderson stayed inside to double-team end Aaron Smith, and Woodley shot into the backfield. Neal got a great inside block, but Woodley did a masterful job of getting free. He set Neal down to rush past, showed amazing recovery speed to turn and chase Flacco as the quarterback stepped up in the pocket, and took the rookie down. After all these years, Neal is still one of the better blocking fullbacks in the NFL, and Woodley simply outdid him.
The second sack came with 5:13 left in the game, with the Ravens down by two. Flacco went shotgun, and the pressure came out of a formation no offense wants to see: Harrison and Woodley both shooting through from the left side. It was Harrison's job to take the outside and a double-team from Anderson and McGahee. Farrior collapsed the left tackle and got through, forcing Flacco to step up. By this time. Woodley had pushed right guard Chris Chester back about five yards, and took Flacco down as he tried to find any semblance of a pocket. On the next play, Flacco threw the pick-six to Polamalu that iced the game for the Steelers.
One thing that impressed me right from the start with Woodley is that he's not just another "endbacker" -- he can also drop into coverage effectively. His ability to occupy a zone area caused Flacco to alter his reads more than once, and that's not something you can afford to do against this defense. Woodley has the highest Success Rate against the pass this season of any Pittsburgh linebacker (57 percent) and the lowest average yards after catch allowed (3.9), Only Farrior was targeted more often. He's solid in run support, dynamite with speed off the edge, and he works so well in conjunction with his fellow defenders. This is the overriding impression I get when I watch the Pittsburgh defense: As impressive as many of their individual players may be, it's the system, and the players in tandem, that makes it a worthy successor to the legacy of the Steel Curtain.
Arizona Cardinals Linebacker Karlos Dansby
Philadelphia Eagles 32 at Arizona Cardinals 25 (NFC Championship)
Bert Berry. Darnell Dockett. Adrian Wilson. Dominique Rogers-Cromartie. For a Super Bowl defense, the Arizona Cardinals certainly provide an intriguing set of relative unknowns -- relative to teams like the Steelers and Giants, that is. Oh, Wilson is now a national name, but that has a great deal to do with everybody finally talking about how underrated he has been. How many times can people call you underrated before you're not? Only Nnamdi Asomugha knows for sure.
Linebacker Karlos Dansby, another notable no-name, has been a standout for the Cards since he was taken with the first pick in the second round of the 2004 draft. His success upturn has mirrored his team's. Dansby comes into the Super Bowl behind only Ray Lewis and Bart Scott in postseason solo tackles with 19 (and tied with Scott for second behind Lewis with 26 total), but against the Eagles, most of his tackles were on pass plays. Through the 2008 season, he has been by far the team's most targeted linebacker. He may face the same challenge against the Steelers.
Dansby has other ways of stopping plays, like on the third-and-9 from the Arizona 27 with 4:51 left in the first quarter. Aware that he wasn't going to get to Donovan McNabb before McNabb got the ball off. Dansby took a block from Brian Westbrook, waited, and offered up a perfectly-timed deflection at the line. The Eagles were forced to settle for a field goal. When he is up against the run, he's good at sifting through blockers and driving the ball carrier backward, as he did to Correll Buckhalter at the end of the first quarter.
Dansby drops back pretty frequently, and he's decent at filling his part of a zone. The Cardinals did get away with one mistake, though. When McNabb threw short over the middle to Hank Baskett late in the first quarter, there was nobody in the middle of the defense -- no safety, and the linebackers had vacated. Had McNabb thrown the ball to Baskett in a way that didn't require him to adjust, that could have been a major gain; certainly longer than 14 yards.
You can find Dansby in the wrong place from time to time in coverage, but he's proven to be very stout against the run and he does have the overall versatility required in Clancy Pendergast's defense. If the Cardinals manage to pull off the upset, at least one relatively unknown defender will get his day in the sunshine. Given Pittsburgh's reliance on the pass in situations both conventional and unconventional (hint: a lot of third-and-short), don't be surprised if Dansby has the modus operandi for success.
Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back Willie Parker
Baltimore Ravens 14 at Pittsburgh Steelers 23 (AFC Championship)
Jamie Dukes of the NFL Network asked Dansby on Wednesday who the Cardinals' defense was really looking out for in this game. Dansby's answer may have surprised a lot of people: He replied that backup running back Mewelde Moore was a focus. Of course, Football Outsiders has been wondering about Willie Parker's boom-and-bustitude for a long time, and the fact that he ranked 33rd in DYAR among running backs with at least 100 rushes while Moore ranked 13th makes you wonder why Parker has had 51 postseason carries to Moore's four. Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to fire up the DVD and see where the thing takes us.
Arizona's impressive upswing in run defense through the postseason (wait until you see the numbers in Aaron's Super Bowl preview tomorrow) had me wondering which Willie Parker I should watch -- the Willie who blew up the Chargers for 146 rushing yards, or the Willie who could only gain 47 yards on 24 carries against the Ravens? This is always the problem with Mr. Parker. I decided to give Arizona the benefit of the doubt and watch Parker against the Ravens.
Parker started the AFC Championship Game with a three-yard run, cutting back inside from the right in a single-back set before Ray Lewis and Bart Scott took him down. This was followed by a false start called on right tackle Willie Colon, which put the Steelers back at their own 32 with second-and-12. Parker was in the slot in an empty backfield set on the next play, an incompletion to Nate Washington. A 45-yard pass play to Hines Ward saved the day, and Parker got the ball again two plays later. On second-and-5 from the Baltimore 18, he gained two yards out of an I-formation, three-tight end set.
Pittsburgh's next drive saw Parker enveloped by Baltimore's great front seven. First, up the middle out of the I, he was stoned by Trevor Pryce. Parker then tried to bounce one outside, only to be stopped by Haloti Ngata for a loss of one yard. Ngata sacked Ben Roethlisberger on the next play, and another drive was done.
Pittsburgh's next drive started at the Baltimore 35, courtesy of DeShea Townsend's interception. What happened next unearthed a distinct lack of faith in the running game, or a desperate need to air it out: seven plays, six passes, and a field goal. The only time Parker got close to the ball was on a deep pass sideline route, and Parker dropped the pass.
As I watched Parker through the game, it became obvious that if the Steelers want to get things going on the ground, they'll need other options. Right now, Arizona's defense is probably right in the middle of that underpowered San Diego defense that allowed Parker to run wild, and the Baltimore squad that didn't give him anything. I did not see anything from Parker that would allow him to stand out against a defense that can stop the run. He's decent with his speed to the hole, OK with his cut speed, not bad at getting around a tackle ... but amazement is hard to come by. Consistency would be a plus, and that's why Mewelde Moore needs to be on the field more often.