LaMarr Woodley knew the haters were going to show up. He understands they just can't help themselves.
So the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker steeled himself for the backlash after signing a six-year, $61.5 million deal in August to will keep him with the franchise through 2016.
He didn't have to wait long.
All Woodley had to do was hop on his Twitter feed after the defending AFC champions were rolled by Baltimore 35-7 in the season-opener to read how he was overpaid, how his numbers were great because so many teams focused on stopping teammate James Harrison, how he wasn't fit to be the next leader of one of the league's most dominant defenses.
His response? Eyerolls. Lots of them.
''People expect you, when you sign this big contract, to become this Super Freak all of a sudden,'' Woodley said. ''That's what people expect and when you don't give them that early and you're losing, people are looking for reasons to talk about certain people, reasons to point fingers.''
The only pointing Woodley is doing these days is at the skies after one of his sacks while performing his signature ''Super Kick'' celebration.
Woodley leads the AFC with 7 sacks, 5 1/2 of them coming during Pittsburgh's (5-2) three-game winning streak heading into Sunday's litmus test against New England (5-1).
He insists it's just a coincidence that he's found his groove while Harrison has been sidelined with a fractured right orbital bone. Maybe, but Woodley's play should remove all doubt that he's ridden Harrison's coattails to stardom.
''I'm just doing what I'm paid to do and go out there and hit quarterbacks and get turnovers,'' Woodley said.
|Brady avoids rush from Woodley to pass. Patriots - Steelers 2010. (Getty Images)|
Few have done it better over the last five seasons than Woodley, who already has 46 career sacks and showcased all of his unique skills during last week's 32-20 win over Arizona.
Woodley sacked Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb twice and tilted the game permanently in Pittsburgh's favor by forcing Kolb into an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone. With Woodley draped over him Kolb frantically tried to ditch the ball before Woodley tossed him to the ground. The ball never made it to the line of scrimmage and the ensuing two points pushed Pittsburgh's lead to an insurmountable 12 points.
''He's gotten some opportunities, he's capitalizing on them and it's been big for us,'' safety Ryan Clark said. ''We're getting turnovers and making lots of plays putting pressure on the quarterbacks and that's what we need from him.''
Particularly with Harrison out.
The two have been the NFL's best outside linebacker tandem since being paired together for the first time in 2008. Yet Harrison hasn't played since his helmet slammed violently down into his eyes while absorbing a block against Houston on Oct. 2.
The Steelers were 2-2 at the time and hardly playing with the menacing fury that's been the team's trademark dating back to the days of the Steel Curtain.
Did it take losing the unit's emotional leader for the defense to snap out of its funk? Woodley isn't sure, though his teammates have noticed at least one significant change in the last three weeks.
''You know LaMarr, a lot of times he'll come back to the huddle and say that he's missed a play,'' Clark said. ''He hasn't been doing that.''
Maybe because the plays aren't getting missed.
Coach Mike Tomlin is reluctant to find a reason for Woodley's uptick in production, saying the team's ability to get a lead has freed the defense to go into attack mode.
True, though Woodley hasn't let many chances go to waste. He points out the Steelers are different than other 3-4 teams because they require their outside linebackers to cover instead of just rush off the edge on every play.
''We might be 50-50 for us whether we're passing or rushing,'' Woodley said. ''Other teams it's 85 percent, 90 percent. We don't get to just crash the pocket. So when we get back there, we've got to make it count.''
The Steelers need to make it count against the Patriots, who are 6-1 against Pittsburgh when Tom Brady is under center.
It's a huge test, to be sure, though Woodley isn't sure it's a statement game. The haters already said the Steelers' season was over, right?
''According to everybody else the message was sent that we (are) a bad team since the first game of the year,'' Woodley said. ''When we lost that first game of the year, it was `There go the Pittsburgh Steelers, they're an old team' and they kind of put us away early.''
Never mind that Woodley doesn't turn 27 until next month and is the leader of a young nucleus that includes fellow linebacker Lawrence Timmons (25), defensive lineman Ziggy Hood (24) and 22-year-old rookie nose tackle Cam Heyward.
Woodley understood when he signed his contract the franchise viewed him as the next link in a chain of defensive stars that runs from Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu to Hall-of-Famers Joe Greene and Jack Lambert.
He welcomes the responsibility, and the unique financial possibilities it provides.
Woodley uses his Facebook and Twitter pages to give away tickets, re-tweet messages of support from his followers and promote a budding business empire.
This week, he unveiled his own eye black that features the phrase ''Super Kick'' and a silhouette of Woodley doing his trademark celebratory move after recording another sack.
League rules prevent Woodley from wearing the eye black during games, and even though he's a millionaire many times over he's not ready to have his game check docked for the sake of a little marketing.
''I love my money, not no $5,000 fine,'' he said with a laugh.
Besides, Woodley is savvy enough to know nothing sells like winning. If it helps the Steelers do that, the rest will take care of itself.
''First I've got to get it done out there on the field,'' he said. ''Then when I'm getting it done I can sell merchandise. When you ain't getting it done, you can't do nothing.''
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