LATROBE, Pa. — The chat wasn’t exactly a pep talk or a wake-up call so much as Keith Butler providing one of his star pupils with a little perspective.
After the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker coach spent two years watching LaMarr Woodley struggle to stay on the field and live up to the $61.5 million contract he signed two summers ago, Butler decided it was time to get real about the fiscal realities of the NFL.
“If you don’t produce and you make a lot of money, they’re going to find somebody else,” Butler said. “Coaches included.”
Don’t misunderstand. Butler wasn’t hinting in any way that Woodley was in danger of losing his job. Entering the prime of his career, the 28-year-old Woodley remains a force when healthy. Butler simply suggested it might be best for Woodley to do whatever he can to remain healthy more often.
Stay on the field, and the havoc Woodley created while averaging nearly 12 sacks a year between 2008-10 would return. If not, well, Butler couldn’t make any guarantees.
“You see so many great players year to year on the waiver wire and you’re saying ‘Man, they cut that dude? How did they cut that dude? Why did they do that?”’ Butler said. “Because he wasn’t playing up to the money he was making and that’s just the hard fact of the National Football League.”
One longtime teammate James Harrison learned in painful fashion during the offseason. The Steelers cut the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year in March when Harrison declined to take a pay cut. Harrison eventually landed with Cincinnati, but finds himself adapting to a new system and a new surroundings in the twilight a once brilliant career.
It’s a path Woodley would rather not travel. Hamstring and ankle issues have forced him to miss nine of Pittsburgh’s last 24 games, a span that has seen Woodley reach the quarterback just four times. While Woodley points to greater responsibility in pass coverage as part of the reason for the decline, he’s also aware he needed to change the way he prepares.
Though Woodley is reluctant to discuss his weight, Butler estimates Woodley played at around 295 pounds over the last two years. He appears slimmer during the first week of training camp at Saint Vincent College, even if he typically hides his wide 6-foot-2 frame underneath layers of sweatshirts and shorts.
He also switched up his offseason regimen, traveling to Arizona to work out alongside Harrison, safety Ryan Clark and others. Woodley remains vague on the specifics, pointing out the major difference is the heat. Still, he stressed he feels “great” and is ready to quiet some of the criticism while understanding he’ll never be able to turn it completely off.
“I don’t worry about that at all,” Woodley said. “When they pay you the big money, the spotlight is going to be on you no matter what. Sometimes injuries slow you down (but) ... you’ve got to keep moving.”
And, Woodley hopes, moving a little more quickly.
Having some help across the field wouldn’t hurt either. Harrison and Woodley were one of the best bookend linebacker tandems in the NFL when they were able to stay out of the training room. Feeding off each other, they fueled Pittsburgh to two Super Bowl appearances in three years.
When one couldn’t play, however, offensive lines would shift their focus to neutralizing the other. The result was a team sack total that dipped to just 37.5 in 2012, the franchise’s lowest since Woodley joined the team as a second-round draft pick out of Michigan in 2007.
Pittsburgh believes it may found Harrison’s eventual heir in rookie Jarvis Jones, who led the nation in sacks last year at Georgia. Like Harrison, Jones is an instinctive pass rusher. Even better, thanks to his background as an inside linebacker, Jones is quickly grasping the intricacies of his new responsibilities in defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 scheme.
“It’s not a big stretch for him to learn what to do,” Butler said.
Yet the Steelers didn’t make Jones the Steelers’ highest drafted outside linebacker since Huey Richardson in 1991 to go chase tight ends and running backs. And they didn’t pay Woodley all that money to do the same. To be honest, he’s ready to get back to the fun part of his job.
“My game is predicated on sacks and this defense is predicated on getting after the quarterback,” Woodley said.
Getting there — or getting close — can force opponents into mistakes. That didn’t happen nearly enough in 2012. Though Pittsburgh finished No. 1 in total defense for the fourth time in nine years, the Steelers created just 20 turnovers, including four in a meaningless season finale against Cleveland.
The inability to flip the field or make the “splash” plays that Woodley made so regularly earlier in his career contributed to a dismal 8-8 finish. Woodley knows it won’t be tolerated. So does his coach.
“It’s a prove it year for all of us,” Butler said. “This league is like that. Every year if we don’t do well, we all get fired. I wish America was like that, we’d all be more productive.”