LATROBE – When Al Woods was coming out of LSU in 2010, the New Orleans Saints thought enough of defensive lineman Al Woods to trade up in the fourth round to acquire him in the draft.
A few months later, Woods was released by his hometown team, a move that was a hard dose of reality for a young man who had played his high school and college football in Louisiana.
“You’re hopeful for all your draft picks,” Saints coach Sean Payton told reporters at the time when asked about Woods’ release. “I think the mistake is maybe hanging on to them or not recognizing some of the deficiencies and all of a sudden you go two or three years into that.
“He did some things on a positive note that were encouraging and yet ultimately we didn’t feel confident enough with where he was at right now and we went a different direction. We’ve tried to hold true and really evaluate the players once they get here, and he was an example of that.”
In Pittsburgh, Woods has been an example of what a player can accomplish if he continues to learn and perfect his craft.
Woods (6-4, 307) has become a valuable reserve for the Steelers, capable of playing nose tackle or defensive end. And when the Steelers declined to make an offer to retain nose tackle Casey Hampton in the offseason, the opportunity for Woods to take another step forward in the pecking order opened up.
“It’s kind of cool, because those guys are not selfish guys,” said Woods of the Steelers starters. “They’ll sit down and talk to me, help me out. I can always walk up to Brett (Keisel) and say, ‘Hey, coach - I call him coach - what should I do on this particular play?’ Then I’ll try to practice that technique and perfect that technique.”
His hard work was apparent in Saturday’s 18-13 preseason-opening loss to the Giants. Lining up at defensive end, Woods finished the game with nine tackles – two of which were for a loss – and a sack, consistently proving to be a thorn in the side of New York’s offense.
Not bad for a guy who had spent the first week and a half of training camp working at nose tackle because the Steelers were thin at the position.
“It provides us with the flexibility to move him inside and show what he’s capable of there,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “He’s a big-bodied guy, he’s performed well – we want him to add value to his cause and ours by showing position flexibility.”
Woods has done so well, in fact, that when starting nose tackle Steve McLendon missed practice Monday to be with his wife for the birth of a child, it was Woods who replaced him.
“I like them both,” said Woods of the difference between nose tackle and end in Pittsburgh’s defense. “Whatever they want me to do, inside or outside, I’m OK with it.”
He’s come a long way since being cut by the Saints after his first NFL training camp.
The Steelers scooped Woods up off the waiver wire in 2010, signing him to their practice squad. But after a rash of injuries hit Tampa Bay’s defensive line, the Buccaneers signed Woods to their active roster and he appeared in the final nine games, making 17 tackles.
The Buccaneers released Woods in their final cut of training camp in 2011 and he was signed to Seattle’s active roster, appearing in two games, including one against the Steelers in which he made two tackles.
When the Seahawks released him later in the season, the Steelers jumped at the opportunity to bring him back again. Only this time, they weren’t about to put him on the practice squad and give another team the opportunity to sign him away again.
Woods hopes to reward the team’s faith in him.
“I think it is,” said Woods when asked if it’s a big year for him. “I just want to help the team. I want to play, and I want to put my hand in the pile, like coach Tomlin says. I want to help these guys get to the place where we want to go.”
Odds and end zones
Rookie guard Justin Cheadle suffered a knee injury at Monday’s practice and had to be taken from the field on a cart. Cheadle had been working with the second-team offensive line. ... Fifth-round draft pick Terry Hawthorne, a cornerback, and defensive end Nick Williams, seventh-round pick, both returned to practice Monday after sitting out with knee injuries. The practice was the first for Hawthorne, who had missed all of OTAs and training camp. ... Wide receiver Plaxico Burress had surgery Monday to repair a torn rotator cuff. Tomlin said Burress will not be placed on injured reserve at this time. ... Tight end Matt Spaeth also had foot surgery and is expected to be out eight to 10 weeks. ... The Steelers are off today and return to the practice field at Saint Vincent College Wednesday. The 3 p.m. session is open to the public.