OWINGS MILLS – James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley defy conventional blocking schemes and ordinary blockers, overpowering offensive tackles with their superior strength, speed and deep repertoire of pass rushing moves.
Unleashing vicious hits and triggering fearful reactions, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ formidable outside linebacker tandem are the scourge of quarterbacks around the league.
Between the two of them, there’s a mounting body count of fallen quarterbacks decked by their relentless charge into the backfield.
“They have all the tools,” Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher said. “They’re strong, fast and they’re physical. They have what it takes to get the edge on you.”
Now, the Ravens’ retooled offensive line is tasked with walling off Harrison and Woodley to protect quarterback Joe Flacco during Sunday’s season-opener at M&T Bank Stadium.
The two aggressive outside linebackers combined for 20 ½ sacks last season one year removed from generating a total of 23 ½ sacks and piling up 27 ½ three years ago to break the franchise’s sack duo record. That surpassed the record of 24 combined sacks established by Jason Gildon and Joey Porter in 2000 and Kevin Greene and Joey Porter in 1994.
An intimidating former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison is a bullish power rusher who produced 10 ½ sacks, 100 tackles, six forced fumbles and two interceptions last season.
And Woodley is a prototypical all-around outside linebacker who racked up 10 sacks, two interceptions, three forced fumble and two fumble recoveries last season.
“They have two premier pass rushers on the same team,” coach John Harbaugh said. “That makes a big difference. So, you can’t really target a double team on any particular guy. They do a great job, not so much as creating free runners with their pressure package, but they create matchups.
“And they get all their rushes on all your different blockers at some point in time. Those two guys in particular are great leverage rushers. They do a great job with their hands and their leverage just working technique to beat a pass block.”
Woodley has registered 39 sacks in his first four seasons, the best start to a career in Steelers franchise history ahead of Porter and Chad Brown.
Harrison is the lone player in franchise history to pose at least 10 sacks in three consecutive seasons.
“They are part of what makes that defense really good,” Flacco said. “They have two guys on the outside that can really rush the passer and disrupt things in the run game. They do a great job of creating that opportunity and capitalizing on that, but we feel like we have the guys in place to take care of them. We all have to do our part.”
Woodley has a trademark spin move that’s extremely difficult to counteract.
Overwhelming offenses, Harrison rips through blockers or he runs around them.
“Obviously, they’re big, they’re strong, they’re compact, and they’re built,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “They’re built to defend the run and be effective in pass rush. We’re fortunate to go against some guys very similar to that every day.”
The Ravens are in the unenviable position of squaring off with Harrison and Woodley with limited preparation time.
Left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie signed with the Ravens after being cut by the Minnesota Vikings when he reported at 387 pounds. Down to 370 pounds, the 6-foot-8 former Pro Bowl lineman didn’t play at all during the preseason.
And Oher hasn’t played right tackle since his rookie season.
“We’re getting a lot of practice time,” Oher said. “As long as we get good reps every day, it will come. You can’t worry about it. I look forward to it, I love the rivalry and playing against these guys and getting after each other.”
Oher isn’t overly concerned.
Neither are the Ravens’ coaches or Flacco, at least not that anyone will admit.
“We feel good about our tackles,” Cameron said. “We feel good about the men we have protecting. I feel great about where our tackles are going into this game.”
Although it’s difficult to provide chip-blocking assistance against both blockers and stay in maximum protection sets, the Ravens can use double tight end alignments. Plus, they have All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach to lend a hand as an extra bodyguard for Flacco.
Flacco has been hit plenty of times against the Steelers in the past, but he emphasized that he’s not worried.
“The thoughts are all good,” Flacco said. “I’m not really concerned about it. We’re going to go out there and play football and let those guys go play. I am going to have trust behind them.
“I think we have a good group of guys together and that is the most important thing. We have the guys in the right spot, and they are all a good group of guys.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times