Mike Tomlin was hired to replace Bill Cowher in January 2007, and one of his first dramatic acts as the Steelers' coach was to re-make the depth chart at linebacker. Before the end of April, veteran Joey Porter was released, and the first two draft picks had been spent on Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley.
It's looking like another re-make could be in the offing come January 2014.
There are still two games remaining in this 2013 regular season, and the Steelers remain in the race for the AFC's final playoff spot. Even though their chances for securing it deserve to be termed remote, the team has not lost its focus on its weekly assignment. But now they will proceed without Woodley, who was placed on the injured reserve list this afternoon.
The move ends Woodley's season, his seventh with the team, and gives Jason Worilds two more games as the starting left outside linebacker and gives rookie Jarvis Jones two more as the starting right outside linebacker.
Woodley's most recent injury was to his right calf, and it occurred on the opening defensive series of last Sunday's game vs. the Bengals at Heinz Field. Woodley had been inactive for three straight weeks in November – vs. Detroit, at Cleveland, at Baltimore – with an injury to his left calf.
Complicating the issue with the outside linebackers is that Worilds can become an unrestricted free agent in March and that Woodley, who will be 30 next November, will have missed 14 games from 2011-13 with calf, hamstring and ankle injuries. And the situation with injuries is such that a player's production can be impacted for weeks following his return.
While Woodley will have missed 14 games because of injury during the past three seasons, during the three seasons from 2008-10 he was one of the most versatile and productive outside linebackers in football. He stopped the run, recorded 35 sacks, had three interceptions and defensed 12 passes, forced six fumbles and recovered seven. In the run to the Super Bowl XLIII championship, Woodley had six sacks, one pass defensed, and one forced fumble; in the run to Super Bowl XLV, he had three sacks, one pass defensed, and one fumble recovery.
Clearly, Woodley is a productive NFL player when healthy, but how much importance do the Steelers at this point place on the caveat, when healthy?
Worilds, a second-round pick in 2010, has blossomed in this, his fourth, NFL season, much in the same manner as did Keenan Lewis in 2012. He leads the team with seven sacks, and his 28 quarterback pressures ties for the team lead with Cam Heyward. One of the Steelers' core beliefs as a franchise is to keep its own up-and-coming players, and one season after losing Lewis to free agency can the team really afford to lose Worilds as well?
Looming in the background, but just a bit in the background, is Jones, the reigning first-round draft pick, who flashed early, then sustained a concussion against the Jets on Oct. 13 and missed the following week's game vs. Baltimore. Along the way, he made some rookie mistakes and got caught in the wake of Worilds' development and Woodley's status.
Today, Jones has one sack, is fifth on the team with 10 pressures, and last Thursday coordinator Dick LeBeau said, "I think his whole game needs growth, but I think that he has exhibited steady growth. I'm very pleased with the progress he has made. His out-of-position errors have diminished. He almost is never in the wrong place now. I think the more comfortable he gets, you're going to see that this guy is going to be a really good football player."
In another decade, during a different era of the NFL, the Steelers could look at a roster containing Woodley, Worilds and Jones and marvel at their bounty at outside linebacker. But with the sport now governed by free agency tied to a salary cap, Woodley, Worilds and Jones become components of an issue that must be sorted out.
The sorting will commence come the end of this season, and up until then Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones will be the Steelers' starting outside linebackers. And that could be considered to be to their advantage, as it is in a debate for the person who gets the final word.