To get a better idea of what the Titans are getting, I went back and watched a couple games of defensive lineman Al Woods, whom they signed back in March.
Similar to when I did a similar exercise for Sammie Lee Hill last year, the first question was which games to watch. This really wasn’t that hard of a question, but it’s the first place to start with an analysis of him. Although Woods suited up for all 16 games, he only played 216 snaps on defense all year. He saw “significant” snaps in only two games, playing 33 snaps (of 74, 45%) against the Browns in Week 12 and 37 snaps (of 69, 54%). against the Bengals in Week 15. If you believe in revealed preference, that teams tell you what they think by what they do, the Steelers didn’t view him as one of their top four defensive linemen. He saw his only significant work when two of the four players in front of him (both DE Brett Keisel and NT Steve McLendon) were injured.
Another factor that limited Woods’ snaps was he was primarily a base personnel player. Against the Browns, 22 of his 33 snaps came when the Steelers were in their base 3-4, with almost all of those 11 sub package snaps coming after the Steelers took a 20-3 lead midway through the third quarter. Against the Bengals, I specifically noted 4 of his 37 snaps as coming from when the Steelers were in sub package with, again, that work coming after the Steelers took their 24-0 lead. Granted, the Steelers’ primary sub look only had 2 DL on the field, but the Steelers chose to trot Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood out almost every play (they played 66 and 62 snaps against the Browns and 64 and 62 against the Bengals, respectively) rather than playing them their more modest number of snaps and giving Woods additional work.
I should note this is decidedly an amateur analysis. As I’ve written before, I’m not very good at analyzing and evaluating things like hand play by defensive linemen and the subtleties in a player’s stance. The finer points of line technique are lost on me, so I’m going to say very little about them. These are really important things, and the input of somebody who is good at evaluating those things could drastically change my opinion of Woods’ play. Further, two games is a small sample size. Were I to watch all 216 snaps Woods played on defense last year, instead of just the 70 I did, my opinion could similarly change. 2012 was Woods’ fourth year in the league; I did not go back and watch how he played in any of the previous three seasons. So, amateur analysis off a pretty modest sample size, accept the following with a huge grain of salt.
Watching Woods pass rush, I could see why the Steelers might want to limit his sub package snaps. He was a very direct rusher, generally taking a very straightforward rush and bull-rushing the offensive lineman, trying to go through him, rather than using any quickness he might have to try to go around him. This worked okay at times-there was one play where he managed to shove Browns RG Shaun Lauvao back to help force a throw, plus this play against Bengals LG Andrew Whitworth.
The picture isn’t quite as clear as I’d like it to be, but that’s Woods having pushed Whitworth (a pretty good tackle who plays guard like a tackle) into Dalton’s face and getting his arm up to deflect the throw. On the other hand, most of his rushes were not nearly that effective, featuring only a slight push up the middle that did not threaten a quarterback’s 5-step drop. He had two sacks last year, both of Brandon Weeden in the Browns game. Both came as the result of Weeden trying to scramble in his direction, not as the result of him beating an offensive lineman, and were thus what I would characterize as garbage sacks.
Fine, so Woods may primarily be a base downs player. How will he do there? First, one of the things general manager Ruston Webster has praised him for is his versatility. That was apparent in the two games I watched. He played almost exclusively nose tackle in base situations against the Bengals, but against the Browns including sub package situations he played at least 7 snaps at each of left end, right end, and nose tackle. The Steelers ran more of the “traditional” 3-4 than Ray Horton does, so “nose tackle” typically meant either a slant alignment or the traditional 0-tech like the image at the top of the post.
You can see to either side of him the defensive ends are aligned heads-up on the tackles, which was where he aligned when he was a DE in base situations. I only saw a couple of snaps where he was aligned on the outside shoulder of one of the offensive guards as a 3-tech, which is one of the alignments in a Ray Horton 3-4. When in discussing DaQuan Jones, Webster mentioned both he and Woods as players that start at the nose and can go to either end, I think that’s the right outlook-Woods is a nose tackle with the ability to play end.
Even in this sort of detailed dive, it’s hard for me to aggregate my thoughts on Woods into a complete picture. I’ll first highlight my favorite play of his. It was actually a successful play for the Bengals as they converted third-and-1, but it still stood out to me as an impact play by Woods. Here’s the first shot:
I’ve highlighted Woods in blue. From his slant NT alignment to the offensive right side, RG Mike Pollak is trying to reach block him, while he’s trying to prevent C Kyle Cook from getting to the second level to block the left inside linebacker. That’s the idea, at least. Here’s the end result.
As it happens, Woods does his job superbly. He’s able to defeat Pollak’s reach block, prevent Cook from getting up to block the inside linebacker, and work down the line to fill the hole even before the inside linebacker he protected gets there. If this was third-and-2 instead of third-and-1, the Bengals are punting because of his work (and the work the other inside linebacker, Lawrence Timmons, did in beating the fullback block).
Unfortunately, I didn’t see Woods as a player who had nearly that level of impact very often. There were some other good plays, working off of Cook enough to stop Gio Bernard on first-and-goal at the 1, getting his arm in to make the tackle on a cutback play, and some plays where he soaked up a double team. On the other hand, there was that play against the Browns where they ran right at him when he was playing LDE and RT Mitchell Schwartz drove him back for a 4-yard gain. the outside zone plays where as a 0-technique NT where he didn’t prevent Browns C Alex Mack (a good player) from getting to the inside ‘backer, the third-and-1 run at him where he got shoved away by Pollak to create a lane, and some double teams where he ended up on the ground, not a position you want to be in too often.
On the whole, frankly, I wasn’t that impressed by Woods. I didn’t watch the Steelers’ other defensive linemen in those games as intensively as I did him, but my gloss is the Steelers had him accurately rated as just a rotational player. He was active every week less because he had a great impact than because he was versatile. The Titans identified him and went after him aggressively early in free agency because they liked him and thought he could do more. I hope they’re right, but I didn’t see it.