The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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October 3, 2012

Steelers expect improvement with Harrison playing

PITTSBURGH — LaMarr Woodley says it’s not so much the double teams, or the chip from a running back, or even the way an opposing offense might shift its protection scheme to his side of the field.

The absence of fellow former All Pro Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison has had a much less tangible effect on Woodley.

“I really can’t tell as far as, like, the protection schemes,” Woodley said.

But make no mistake. Like the rest of the 1-2 Steelers, Woodley is ecstatic that Harrison is on track to make his season debut Sunday when the Philadelphia Eagles (3-1) come to Pittsburgh.

Harrison practiced fully on Wednesday, and all indications are he will be on the field chasing Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.  

“He definitely makes a difference,” Woodley said of Harrison. “Then, (offenses) kind of have to pick their poison.”

Long known as Blitzburgh under coordinator Dick LeBeau because of its reputation for racking up sacks, the Steelers defense has only five of them through three games. Harrison might not be a cure-all, but he certainly can’t hurt for a game some Steelers are already calling a “must-win.”

“James is a great, great player,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “When he’s out there, he’s definitely a difference-maker for us. Teams have to account for him and possibly have to double-team him. It creates opportunities for others.”

The player who would figure to most benefit is Woodley, who has averaged .83 sacks per game (counting playoffs) over the past four-plus seasons. Woodley has had one sack in each of the past two games out of his customary left outside linebacker position, but Harrison’s replacements on the other side haven’t come close to matching his sack production. Harrison has 58 sacks and needs two more to tie Joey Porter for second on the franchise career list; Chris Carter and Jason Worilds have combined for one sack this season.

It’s a big reason why the defense that had ranked in the top three of the NFL in six of the previous eight years has plummeted to 21st four weeks into this season.

“We’ve had opportunities to get sacks and missed a few, so it’s just about taking advantage of what you get and when you get your hands on a quarterback, getting him on the ground,” Keisel said.

That simple task figures to be as difficult as it will be all season for the Steelers on Sunday with the speedy, elusive Vick in town. Vick is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher for a quarterback, so pursuing him isn’t as simple as it is with a traditional, plodding pocket passer.

“With Michael Vick, it’s not about necessarily making the play as it is stopping him from making the play,” safety Ryan Clark said. “Maybe sometimes you can’t rush up the field or you can’t go inside because you want to keep that pocket and keep him inside and make him a pocket passer.”

Vick has been sacked 11 times through Philadelphia’s first four games. Five of those came in the Eagles’ lone loss, at Arizona.

“We want to get him moving a little bit inside the pocket and not outside the pocket, force him to make some bad decisions and give our secondary an opportunity to make some plays,” Woodley said.

But in addition to ranking tied for 29th in the league in sacks, the Steelers have managed only one interception this season.

The lack of those kinds of “splash plays” – to use coach Mike Tomlin’s vernacular – is, as much as anything, why the Steelers are 1-2 for the first time under Tomlin. In addition to Harrison, All Pro safety Troy Polamalu is practicing fully and expected to return to action against the Eagles after missing the past two games.

Vick has been prone to throw interceptions when rushed into making quick decisions. That shifts the burden back onto the Steelers’ pair of prominent pass-rushers.

Harrison and Woodley each dealt with injuries last season, meaning it’s been more than a year since both were on the field at the same time and 100 percent healthy. The prospect of that changing has Woodley salivating.

“Hopefully being that we have James back,” said Woodley, “we will get some pressure on that side, and that will make (Vick) come back to me.”

Notes: Along with Harrison and Polamalu, the Steelers’ other standout who has missed significant time due to injury also practiced fully Wednesday. RB Rashard Mendenhall reiterated that he expects to play Sunday and that he believes he will start. Mendenhall has not played since tearing the ACL in his right knee in last season’s regular season finale Jan. 1. ... Starting RT Marcus Gilbert also practiced fully and indicated he was healthy enough he would play Sunday.

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