LATROBE, Pa. (AP) —There’s no blocker LaMarr Woodley won’t take on. No quarterback he won’t rush out of fear he might overcommit and cause a long touchdown pass. No running back he hesitates to tackle.

Ask him to make suggestions to Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau about how to improve what has been the NFL’s No. 1 defense the last two seasons, that’s something Woodley won’t do.

When the Steelers reported to training camp last weekend, NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison revealed he freelanced by stepping into coverage on his record 100-yard interception return touchdown against Arizona. A couple of players let it slip that star safety Troy Polamalu is permitted to improvise when he believes a play can be made, and his teammates must cover for him.

Woodley wouldn’t think about asking one of the NFL’s pre-eminent coaches to allow him such freedom, even though he had multiple sacks in each of the Steelers’ three playoff games.

“I know I don’t tell him how to run the defense,” said Woodley, the third-year outside linebacker who had 11½ sacks during the season and six in the playoffs. “Maybe some of the older guys, but I’m too young to request anything. Whatever coach LeBeau puts in, I just go out and do it. I don’t tell him what to do with his defense. He’s been running defenses for years — and it works.”

As with most Super Bowl winners a season later, the Steelers face the difficult assignment of trying to top a championship season. Another problem: There doesn’t appear to be much room for improvement by a defense that was No. 1 overall, No. 1 against the pass, No. 1 in fewest points allowed and No. 2 against the run, missing by about three yards per game of leading the NFL in the top three defensive statistical categories.

“It would have been nice to have No. 1s across the board, but winning the championship was a lot better,” inside linebacker James Farrior said.

Unlike some recent NFL champions, the Steelers weren’t ravaged by free agency. They return nine of their 11 defensive starters from last season and one of the replacements, cornerback William Gay, was a part-time starter by the end of the season. The other, outside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, was better statistically than the player he replaces, Larry Foote.

That’s why there’s no doubt in LeBeau’s mind the Steelers can improve, although they had the first defense in franchise history to allow fewer than 4,000 yards in a season, giving up 3,795.

“Dick LeBeau told us that people say you finished first in a lot of categories, so there’s nowhere to go but down,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “But he thinks we can get better, so that’s what we’re trying to do every day. If each of us gets better, we should be a better defense.”

The Steelers also were No. 1 overall defensively in 2007, yet raised their sacks from 36 that season to 51 in 2008 and their interceptions from 11 to 20. They also gave up an average of 29 fewer yards per game than in 2007, despite playing one of the roughest schedules of any Super Bowl winner.

Still, they realize it will be difficult to improve on one of the best seasons by any NFL defense. They gave up relatively few big plays all season — the Super Bowl was an exception — and held seven opponents to 10 points or fewer and 11 to no more than one touchdown.

“Every year, we’re putting in something new,” Woodley said. “You don’t want to look the same every year. You’ve got to catch the offense off guard.”

Despite Arizona’s success in throwing deep during the second half of the Steelers’ 27-23 victory in the Super Bowl, Farrior doesn’t think opponents will go downfield more, if only because there are few, if any, receivers like the Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald.

“When you know it’s going to be a pass every time, sometimes it’s not even fair,” Farrior said, a reference to the Steelers allowing an average of 23 fewer yards passing per game than any other team.

Ryan Clark won’t drop any hints of what the Steelers expect offenses to do.

“If I was to sit here and tell you how to beat us, that would make me the stupidest free safety in the league,” he said.


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