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Woodley has carved his niche

Steelers LB is overshadowed by teammates, but is a key component to the defense.

Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley kept hearing late last season that he’d hit the proverbial first-year starter’s wall. Then he went out and got two sacks in each of the Steelers’ three playoff games.

AP photo

PITTSBURGH — Flash back to the Super Bowl, and it may have seemed that the Steelers secured their sixth NFL championship when Santonio Holmes tiptoed along the sideline to catch Ben Roethlisberger’s last-minute touchdown pass, a dramatic ending to a score-or-lose Pittsburgh drive.

They hadn’t. Not then.

There was one more pivotal play to go — LaMarr Woodley’s sack of Arizona’s Kurt Warner that resulted in a fumble the Steelers recovered, allowing them to run out the clock.

The Woodley sack hasn’t replayed nearly as many times over the last seven months as Holmes’ catch, not that Woodley minds. All season, it seemed, he was repeatedly upstaged by someone on his own team.

Woodley had six sacks in three playoff games, yet it was James Harrison’s record 100-yard interception return touchdown that likely will be remembered as long as the Super Bowl is played.

Woodley also would have led most teams with his 11 1/2 sacks, yet it was Harrison who won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award by making 16.

“Sometimes when it’s you that’s not getting it, it’s somebody else out there who’s getting sacks,” Woodley said.

While Woodley hasn’t quite reached the national recognition level of Harrison or safety Troy Polamalu, he has needed just two NFL seasons — only one as a starter — to become one of the league’s best outside linebackers.

Woodley was a part-timer in 2007, yet only three other current-day NFL linebackers (Shawne Merriman, Terrell Suggs and DeMarcus Ware) had more sacks in their first two seasons than Woodley’s 15 1/2 .

Again, not that Woodley cares that much. The former Michigan star already has a Super Bowl ring and is convinced that unless injuries or other unexpected difficulties intercede, there is enough talent on this Steelers defense to win multiple titles.

The Steelers, for example, lost former starting inside linebacker Larry Foote to free agency, yet they have former first-round draft pick Lawrence Timmons ready to replace him. Timmons had five sacks as a part-time player — sound familiar? — last season.

Coach Mike Tomlin referred to that depth Thursday as having “starters, and starters in waiting.”

There was little waiting around for the 6-foot-2, 265-pound Woodley, who had two sacks in the Steelers’ only playoff game during the 2007 season. He started last season by getting 9 1/2 sacks in his first eight games.

Woodley slowed during the second half, when he missed a game to injury and had two sacks in seven games, and he began hearing that he was hitting the proverbial end-of-season wall. Because the NFL season is about 25 percent longer than any college season they played, many younger starters tend to slow up near the end of the four-month regular season grind.

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