Woodley played one of his strongest games of the season, despite the best efforts of the New England Patriots to avoid him.
So many elements of the defensive play against the Patriots went awry yesterday evening that it seems futile to highlight any failure in particular. Despite that — or perhaps because of that — Woodley stood out as one of the only players on the defensive side of the ball for the Steelers that was not a liability.
In fact, he often found himself down the field making up for somebody else's lapses.
That's the kind of day it was for the veteran outside linebacker: desperately trying to clean up the messes of others. In fact, while the Patriots created the majority of their success on the ground on the left side of the offensive line, much of the limited success they found in Woodley's direction was not his doing.
A week after failing to register on the stat sheet, Woodley was all over the field in the running game, getting in on tackles as though James Harrison were still in Pittsburgh. The league officially credits him with just two solo tackles and six assists, but he was clearly the primary tackler on more than two plays.
Against a quarterback like Brady, however, outside linebackers rarely have great success in rushing the passer, and yesterday was no different. If the New York Giants have taught us anything, it's that pressure up the middle is what gets the Patriots quarterback off his game, not the edge rush.
Forced incompletions by the inside pressures of Steve McLendon, Heyward, and Timmons would seem to attest to that fact. Even the two generous sacks credited to Worilds owe much to the inside pressure the Steelers generated.
It didn't help matters that Woodley got off to a slow start in his pass rush, however. In fact, on his first couple of rushes, Marcus Cannon (starting in place of the injured Sebastian Vollmer) put Woodley on his backside.
That was the case on the Patriots' second series when Brady hooked up with Rob Gronkowski for 34 yards on a 3rd-and-14. That play helped light the fire in New England's offense, which was about to start the game 0 for 2 on third downs if not for that conversion.
In fact, some of the biggest plays of the game came against a Steelers pass rush was absent Woodley's presence. Brady, it seemed, exploited every opportunity that Woodley didn't rush.
Danny Amendola's 34-yard touchdown featured a delayed rush into a double-team. The 19-yard strike to Gronkowksi saw Woodley in coverage. He and the rest of the defense sold out on the run for Aaron Dobson's 81-yard dagger.
Still, when given an opportunity, Woodley made a difference.
He was there to recover the fumble that began the early second half turnaround. On the following series he hit Brady's arm on a throw, and was at his feet on the next play to force an incompletion and a three-and-out.
Woodley was even in position for a sack earlier in the game instead of just another of his four total pressures, if not for Heyward beating him to the punch.
After the Patriots drove down the field on Worilds and Jarvis Jones late in the third, Dick LeBeau put Woodley back in to help hold them to a field goal. But from there on, it was a mess.
Energized by a 42-yard punt return by Julian Edelman, New England began to put the finishing touches on a commanding victory that saw the Patriots punch all four of their fourth quarter drives into the end zone.
And all the while they took Woodley out of the game with quick dropbacks and runs in the other direction. As was the case so often throughout the evening, he could do little about it as Brady took advantage of a porous and undisciplined secondary, whose failures came against both the pass and the run.
New England's last two scores, in fact, took all of two plays apiece, with the last one beginning at the 28 after Ben Roethlisberger's second interception.
LeGarrette Blount ran behind Logan Mankins and Nate Solder for 23 yards on the first play, away from Woodley. On the following play, Woodley pushed Gronkowski back into Blount's face and into the grip of Ziggy Hood at the 4-yard line.
Yet as his tilt with the All-Pro tight end came to a halt, he was left standing there in disbelief over how the defense around him had failed yet again, as Gronkowski raised his arms in glee.