Advertising

Labriola On

Labriola on Woodson's analysis being spot-on

LATROBE, Pa. – Ready or not, here it comes:

• “I can't remember the last time that they had a playmaker on the defensive side,” Rod Woodson said during a mid-June appearance on NFL Network. “(Ryan) Shazier was going to be that guy, and unfortunately, he got hurt, but I'm just trying to figure out who it’s going to be. The last time I've seen a playmaker on that side, Troy Polamalu was suited up for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

• "At the end of the day, when they lose their game against Jacksonville, 42-45, your defense is a concern," Woodson added. "And I can’t remember the last time they had a playmaker on the defensive side. Shazier was gonna be that guy, and he unfortunately got hurt. The last time I’ve seen a playmaker on that side, Troy Polamalu was suited up for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They need to find somebody. Who is gonna make a big play for this football team in critical situations when you have to have it for the defense.

• "That’s my concern for them,” Woodson concluded. “Can they find a guy? Did they draft a guy this year? Is one of the new guys coming in going to be that guy? Who is going to be a leader to take charge of that defense to make the players what they need to be?"

• This might come across as harsh, come across as the musings of a disgruntled former player, but Rod Woodson is not one of those. He’s proud to have played for the Steelers organization, and he’s proud that his Hall of Fame career began in Pittsburgh when Chuck Noll was the coach and Dan Rooney was the team president. That said, his opinion is spot-on.

• Training camp opened for the Steelers two days ago, and the hitting begins tomorrow. And while there are countless issues to be resolved, roster spots and roles to be earned, nothing might turn out to be as pressing as doing what Woodson was talking about.

• Finding a playmaker on defense.

• Woodson didn’t specify, but based on the position he played and the way he played it, I’m guessing he was referring to a certain type of playmaker because Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt and T.J. Watt each are playmakers in their own right. But because Woodson is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a cornerback/safety who finished his great career with 71 interceptions, 12 of which he returned for touchdowns, the kind of playmaker I believe he was referencing was a defensive back who can make plays on the football.

• Which is something the Steelers haven’t had, as Woodson pointed out, since Troy Polamalu was in his prime.

• Last year, the Steelers finished with 16 interceptions, but only 11 of those came from defensive backs, and only Sean Davis (three) and Mike Hilton (two) finished with more than one.

• The Steelers set a franchise record and led the NFL with 56 sacks last season, and that kind of pressure on the quarterback should result in more quick throws, more hurried throws, more opportunities for interceptions.

• But in the last 20 years, which includes all of Dick LeBeau’s second stint as the team’s defensive coordinator, the most interceptions by a Steelers defensive back in a season is seven, which was turned in by Troy Polamalu in both 2008 and 2010. In the other 18 seasons, the most interceptions by a Steelers defensive back was five – by Polamalu in 2004, and by Dewayne Washington in both 1998 and 2000.

• In terms of potential candidates to fill such a role, the first guy to come to mind is Joe Haden, a veteran former No. 1 pick who still has the skills befitting a player drafted where he was. Haden has 20 interceptions in 101 career NFL games, with his best season being the six he recorded in his rookie year of 2010. That was some time ago, but Haden also has recorded seasons of three or more interceptions five different times in his first eight NFL seasons.

• Even though Haden didn’t join the team last summer until the night before the preseason finale, he had a solid year, as evidenced by the fact he was among the league leaders in having opposing quarterbacks avoid his side of the field. If this continues into 2018, that may lessen Haden’s chances, but it then would increase Artie Burns’.

• Burns came to the Steelers as a No. 1 pick in 2016, and in his final season at Miami, he had six interceptions. He followed that up with three interceptions in nine starts for the Steelers as a rookie, which indicated he has the kind of skills that can make him a consistent interceptor of the ball. Burns’ production fell off last season, but he just turned 23 on May 1. Burns also got off to a good start here during the camp’s first practice when he cut under a sideline route run by Antonio Brown and intercepted a pass thrown by Ben Roethlisberger.

• Davis and Hilton both will be counted upon to be productive in this area once again, and rookie Terrell Edmunds posted six interceptions over his final two college seasons at Virginia Tech. Cam Sutton had seven interceptions during his college career at Tennessee.

• Haden, Burns, Davis, Hilton, Sutton, and Edmunds all again will see significant playing time in the secondary, and while none of them are Woodson-esque in their ability to intercept passes, they all seem to have more to offer in that area than, say, Ike Taylor.

• The foundation of their ability to deliver on that potential will be laid here, and then whether they deliver come the regular season will end up being a critical issue for this particular Steelers defense throughout 2018. Just as Rod Woodson said.

Advertising