Monday, June 15, 2020

Rod Woodson—1993: A Season for the Ages

By Nick Webster
Credit: Bruce Testor
This past season Stephon Gilmour, deservedly, won Defensive Player of the Year for his play at cornerback. This is a relative rarity, with the award cornerbacks broke their tie with safety’s for the least recognition in DPOY Awards since the AP began awarding it in 1971.
The Mel Blount and Lester Hayes both led the league with double-digit interception numbers on their path to the award. Then, in 1993, Rod Woodson won the award with just 8 interceptions, a figure that was not league leading in that season—what transpired?  What follows is a game-by-game account of Rod Woodson’s 1993 season compiled based on tape study of every single play of the Steeler defense that season.

The cornerback position can be hard to judge and, notably, many of the early selections for DPOY from the position were selected on the back of extraordinary interception numbers.

First a refresher—the Steeler team was headed by a young new head coach names Bill Cowher, in just his second season at age 36, Cowher was still making a name for himself. The defensive coordinator was Dom Capers, also in his second season who was aided by a DB Coach you may have heard of named Dick LeBeau. LeBeau had already held a defensive coordinator spot in Cincinnati where he had tinkered with the zone blitz concepts that were largely originated years earlier by Bill Arnsparger.

These creative young, at the time, coaches headed a defense that was up and coming and loaded with playmakers. Rod Woodson and Greg Lloyd were the holdovers and stars in the system, but 1993 also saw the addition of Kevin Greene from the Rams and Chad Brown a second-round pick out of Colorado.

The defense was poised to go on a multi-year run of dominance and would be nicknamed “The Defense of the 90’s”, given that their star Linebackers Greene (91), Lloyd (95), Brown (94) and Kirkland (99) all wore uniform numbers in the ’90s.  But 1993 was the year of Rod Woodson.

Game 1 – Pit v. SF:   4 Targets, 2 Completions, 23 Yards, 0 TDs, 2 Ints
Steve Young, the reigning Passer Rating leader, comes out of the gate hot hitting 13 of his first 15 for 2 TDs. Woodson is not particularly targeted in the streak and draws John Taylor in coverage for much of the game. Woodson is firmly established at left corner and is not traveling or covering any 49er particularly.  

In the second half, Woodson gets hot and picks off two Young passes on consecutive drives to present the Steelers with an opportunity to pull off the victory. His first int comes off a poor pass from Young, pressured out of the pocket to his right by Kevin Greene the lefty QB throws across his body off one foot downfield to Brent Jones. Woodson comes off his man and picks it off undercutting the intended receiver. He shows excellent ball skills making a leaping catch in front of Jones who has no chance to break up the play. It’s an excellent example of what makes Woodson the ballhawk he is known as.
The Steelers go 4-and-out on the following drive. Then, on the first play of the next 49er drive, Woodson picks off another Young pass, another display of ball skills. Woodson is man-to-man on Jerry Rice on the right side, Rice releases inside and goes deep downfield, Woodson trails him to – again – high point the slightly underthrown ball for an Int.  A better-thrown ball could have meant trouble given how Woodson was trailing on the play.
Outside of his dominance in coverage Woodson also blocks a 47-yard field goal coming off the edge, despite the loss, Woodson’s play leaves an impression of what’s to come.

Game 2 – Pit @ LA:   6 Targets, 3 Completions, 27 Yards, 0 TDs, 1 Int
The Steelers go to LA and get trounced by the Rams with Jim Everett having a great day, though relatively little success targeting Woodson. Henry Ellard has a huge first half with 8 receptions for 120 yards – mostly targeting D.J. Johnson.  

Woodson’s Interception is noteworthy however for the fact that – while it counts on the stat sheet – it had virtually no impact on the game. The pick was a garbage end-of-half hail-mary with so little meaning that the announcers fail to even mention it merely calling it the end of the half.  It is another display of the hands that were one of Woodson’s greatest traits, with the ball in his area, he has a chance to pick off any pass at his best.
Game 3 – Pit v. Cin:   0 Targets, 1 Pass Interference Penalty for 22 Yards
Dave Klingler completely avoids Rod Woodson throughout the entire game; finally, down 34–6 in the fourth quarter the Bengals replace Klingler with veteran castoff Jay Schroeder. On his second pass attempt Schroeder finally targets Woodson and draws a 22-yard Pass Interference penalty on Woodson which will be his only PI penalty of the year. He gets caught making too much contact on a stop-and-go to Will Carroll.

Game 4 – Pit @ Atl:  4 Targets, 1 Completion, 21 Yards, 0 TD’s, 2 Ints, 1 Def Holding Penalty
Falcon starter Bobby Hebert struggles massively as the Falcons fall behind 45–17 in the 4th quarter.  Woodson gives up a 21-yard completion to Mike Pritchard in the 3rd quarter, but otherwise, Hebert cannot capitalize. Finally, the Falcons pull Hebert for Jim Miller who is injured on his first play and is then replaced by Billy Joe Tolliver in the 4th quarter. In Tolliver’s first snaps of the season, the drive ends with a Woodson Interception near the goal line, when he jumps in front of Mike Haynes on a curl.
Finally, on the last play of the game, Woodson again is the beneficiary of a gift another Hail Mary interception his second of the season; like most great statistical seasons Woodson was the beneficiary of some good luck.
Game 5 – Pit v. SD:   1 Target, 1 Completion, 11 Yards, 0 TDs
Coming off a buy, the Steeler defense absolutely smothers the Chargers particularly in the running game; the Chargers gain 19 yards on 20 rushing attempts.  In the passing game Woodson has a very quiet day – giving up an 11-yard completion to Anthony Miller on a comeback route on the second play of the game and then not being targeted for the remaining 59+ minutes of the game.

Game 6 – Pit v. NO:  8 Targets, 3 Completions, 46 Yards, 0 TDs, 2 Ints
One of Woodson’s busiest games of the season sees him targeted 8 times and again, for the third time in the young season he picks off two passes. Again, Woodson is the beneficiary of a certain amount of luck, Intercepting a pass tipped into the air by Saint RB Derek Brown for his first Interception of the day and returning it 63 yards for a touchdown to put the Steelers up 7 – 0 on the fourth plan of the game.
On the Saints second possession Woodson deflects a swing pass out of the backfield intended for Fullback Brad Muster. The third Saints possession of the game ends with another Woodson interception, a great play where Woodson undercuts an out pattern to Pat Newman for a diving interception that again displays his special ball skills.
Though the end of the first quarter Woodson has four targets, two interceptions and two other passes defensed. The remainder of the game sees the Saints having far more success going to Woodson going 3 of 4 for 46 yards.

Game 7 – Pit @ Cle .5 Targets, 0 Completions
Through 6 games Woodson has already picked off 7 passes and,along with a little luck, is off to a great start, and the leader in the clubhouse for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.  

He has been so dominant and so statistically impressive that announcer Tom Hammond invokes thoughts of Night Train Lane and the all-time single-season interception record, over 40 years old at the time.  

In early action Browns wideout Mark Carrier injures a hamstring and the Browns attack will struggle to gain traction with his replacement Rico Smith stepping into a larger role.  

One play broke that trend was a 62-yard touchdown to WR Michael Jackson. Jackson caught an underneath pass 4 yards downfield behind Linebacker Levon Kirkland and ran through the defense for the remaining 58 yards. The Steeler defense, when it does have breakdowns, is often a victim of asking too much of its great linebacking core and young Bill Belichick exploited the Kirkland Jackson match up beautifully.

The only target of the game for Woodson had him sharing coverage in a short pass against a zone, it was an otherwise uneventful game.

Game 8 – Pit @ Cin:   2 Targets, 1 Completion, 12 Yards
After replacing David Klingler in the first Bengal – Steeler tilt Jay Schroeder is now the starter in Cincinnati though the team would revert-back to Klingler in a few weeks. Rarely targeted, Woodson gives up a single completion for 12-yards to Carl Pickens in the 3rd quarter. At the seasons mid-point, it is only the second time in the season-to-date that he has ceded a reception without also picking off a pass in the same game.

Game 9 – Pit v. Buf:   5 Targets, 3 Completions, 63 Yards
In a game where the defense shined, Woodson is beaten over the top for the first time all season and this 51-yarder to Andre Reed made an otherwise strong game look weaker. Woodson usually is lined up at Left Cornerback and is often opposite Bills star Andre Reed making this as close to a one-on-one matchup Woodson has had to-date. Ironically, on the play where Woodson is beaten by Reed it’s a rare instance of him aligned on the right side.  

In the first quarter Woodson tips a second-down pass to Reed incomplete; then two plays later he gives up a short 7-yarder to Reed on first down. Woodson is not targeted again until the last drive of the half. On 3rd down from their own 18 with just :38 seconds left in the half Woodson gets burned.
On the play, Reed releases downfield and slowly fades to the sideline.  As Reed fades, Woodson loses contact with him and Reed has created meaningful horizontal separation.  A well-placed Kelly ball is positioned over Reed’s right shoulder but given the separation Reed has created, the ball is now over Woodson’s left shoulder and he gets turned around.  Darren Perry is there for help over the top, but not until the Bills have their biggest play of the game and have created a scoring opportunity late in the 2nd quarter.
Two plays later after a sack and an incomplete pass the half was over and the shutout was preserved.  In the second half, Frank Reich replaces Jim Kelly but the results do not improve, the last Bills offensive play of the game is an incomplete pass from Frank Reich to Steve Tasker with Rod Woodson in coverage.

Game 10 – Pit @ Den:  4 Targets, 3 Completions, 29 Yards
The 6-4 Steelers take on the 6–4 Broncos and get trounced in a 37–13 loss. Bronco QB John Elway has a fantastic game though he only targeted Woodson 4 times with 2 of those successful. A 10-yard first-down completion on 1st and 10 and a 17-yard completion on 2nd and 9 saw Vance Johnson targeted on each.Vance had a strong game, though his TD catch was at the expense of Rookie Deon Figures who is receiving increasing snaps at this point in the season and is frequently picked on opposite his more seasoned teammates.

Game 11 – Pit @ Hou:   1 Target, 0 Completions
The Oilers Run ‘n Shoot Offense has the Steelers respond with a 2–3–6 alignment as opposed to their typical 3–4. This alignment has Deon Figures and Gary Jones as starters in the defensive backfield and sees 270-pound starting ILB Levon Kirkland on the bench as the game starts. Warren Moon and Haywood Jeffries have exceptional games, the latter with 7 receptions for 139 yards including a 66-yard Touchdown.  

The Oiler alignment typically has Jeffries as the inside receiver on the left side of the offensive formation, with Woodson rarely assigned coverage. Jeffries’ 66-yard TD strike comes on a Steeler blitz with Carnell Lake coming off the edge, Jeffries gets behind CB D.J. Johnson and S Darren Perry is slow in getting over to provide support.  
Game 12 – Pit v. NE:   8.5 Targets, 3.5 Completions, 95 Yards
In one of Woodson’s two or three worst games of the season, he gives up almost 100 yards largely covering the since-forgotten Patriot WR Michael Timson.The first time Woodson is targeted is on a deep pass to Timson which goes for 48 yards after Woodson is slow to turn and run with the diminutive wideout, a slightly better throw could have allowed Timson to score had he not had to slow down to catch the ball. However, Woodson’s speed is such that it takes great separation to get behind him and not get run down. Every time in the 1993 season Woodson is beaten, he is never run away from—speed counts.
On the next Patriots drive Woodson yields a 9-yarder to Timson and Woodson is shaken up on the play, a victim of friendly fire from an incoming Greg Lloyd.
Woodson sits out a single play after being shaken up, but perhaps it should have been longer. On the first play, he is back on the field Bledsoe again targets Woodson, this time covering Vinson Brisby on the right side of the defensive formation as the Patriots have no receivers on the other side. The ensuing completion is good for 31 yards.
On Woodson’s first three targets of the game each ended with a completion, the back half of the game would be far better for Woodson. Woodson is still capable of the unique type of plays that only athletes of his stature can make; on the next drive, he produces a leaping play to bat down a Drew Bledsoe check-down attempt on a corner-blitz.
Game 13 – Pit @ Mia:   6 Targets, 1 Completion, 5.5 Yards, 1 Int
On a Miami Monday night, the Steelers face off against a depleted Dolphin team which has Steve DeBerg at the helm with Dan Marino out injured with a torn Achilles. The veteran DeBerg throws the ball 44 times and does not avoid Woodson, throwing his way 7 times (twice with a receiver doubled) though Woodson performs phenomenally coming off one of his toughest games of the year.  

In those 7 targets, 2 are complete (both in double coverage) one for just 2-yards on 1st and 10 and the other for 8 yards on 2nd and 10. However, Woodson personally causes two turnovers; one a forced fumble downfield after a Terry Kirby pass went for 47, one a midfield Interception to close the game as the Dolphins drive for a win down 21–20 with the clock running down.

Woodson’s 2nd quarter Forced Fumble demonstrated his great speed, hustle, and ball skills.  Kirby catches the ball on a short wheel-route out of the backfield. The Dolphins as with many before them, exploit the slow-footed Linebacker Levon Kirkland.  

Kirby pulls-away, avoiding a tackle attempt by Carnell Lake, bouncing off Linebacker Chad Brown and S Darren Perry.  After being chased down by D.J. Johnson, Woodson makes up ground and tomahawks the ball from Kirby’s hands on the 6-yard line allowing the trailing Carnell Lake to recover the ball deep in Steeler territory at the 3-yard line.
Then – with the Dolphins down 1 (21–20) 1st and 10 on their own 44-yard line with :15 seconds left, DeBerg tries to drive the comeback. Content with getting into Field Goal range, the Dolphins are not looking for the Hail Mary but rather to pick up smaller chunks of yardage to make way for a Stoyanovich Field Goal for the victory.  

DeBerg’s sideline pattern to Mark Ingram is read perfectly by Woodson, who steps in front of the pass for the Interception and is headed down the sideline for the Endzone. Only a great hustling play by Richmond Webb–who has an angle on the much fleeter Woodson–prevents it from being a pick-six . . . game-over, Steelers win.
This huge game late in the season likely sealed Woodson’s Defensive Player of the Year lead.

Game 14 – Pit v. Hou:   1 Target, 1 Completion, 10 Yards
Houston jumps out to an early 14-point lead following a long run with a short pass by RB Gary Brown and an Interception return TD by Bo Orlando, less than six-minutes into the game.  Off the early lead Houston’s game-plan is relatively conservative with a good Run-Pass balance for a Run ‘n Shoot Offense and with many of the passes being to Backs or Tight Ends for short gains.  Woodson is targeted once and gives up a 10-yard reception on 2nd and 13 in the 4th quarter.

Game 15 – Pit @ Sea 0 Targets, 0 Completions
Woodson is not attacked by young Rick Mirer in the Seattle game as the Seahawks grind out a win riding 45 Rushes for 267 Yards with over 35 minutes of possession to surprise the favored Steelers.  Woodson’s 6 tackles are all made on running plays as the Seahawks pound their opponents.

Game 16 – Pit v. Cle:  5 Targets, 4 Completions, 72 Yards
The Steelers win their final game of the season against their division rivals to earn a playoff spot for the second straight year under Bill Cowher. Woodson gives up his longest completion of the season a 55-yarder to veteran Mark Carrier but has an otherwise solid game.

The first quarter is quiet, though Woodson does muff a punt on special teams. On the first Browns play of the second quarter, Woodson gives up his biggest play of the year. Lined up man-to-man with Mark Carrier on the defensive left, Woodson gets a right-hand jam on Carrier off the line. The jam does not materially throw Carrier off who gets an outside release downfield. Woodson is able to run in Carrier’s hip pocket and appears to be in excellent position. The Testaverde bomb however is slightly underthrown 30 yards down the right sideline and Carrier does a better job adjusting to the throw than Woodson who loses balance after Carrier goes up for the catch. Carrier regains his balance but has lost enough speed so the Steeler defense can catch up.  He bounces off a tackle attempt of D.J. Johnson and Darren Perry before Greg Lloyd can finally mop up the play 55-yards downfield.  The play could easily have gone for a Touchdown; however, the Steeler defense holds and the Browns have to settle for a 36-yard Matt Stover Field Goal.
On the first play following the bomb Woodson injures his hand in run support along with Darren Perry and Chad Brown.  Woodson misses the remaining two defensive plays of the drive but returns when the Browns regain the ball for the following drive and the remainder of the game is largely uneventful.

Season Recap:   56 Targets, 26.5 Completions, 414 Yards, 0 TD’s, 8 Int’s
Completion: 47.3%,  Touchdown: 0.0%,  Interception: 14.3%,  Yds / Attempt: 7.4,  
Defensive Passer Rating: 32.8

Woodson’s season was truly special. His 32.8 Passer Rating allowed is among the best ever and up there with the great seasons that Deion Sanders and Ty Law had, 2009 Darrelle Revis and outlier great seasons like Eric Allen’s 1998 or Asante Samuel’s 2010.  

His interception percentage specifically would rank 4th among CBs targeted in the last 25 years (1995–2019); complete data is not available prior to 1995 so it is possible another CB had a higher rate in 1993 or 1994).  Clearly, any season where a top CB allows zero touchdowns is a tremendous success.

Woodson did it largely with superior physical skills, excellent hands, and anticipation, but without always the most technically perfect technique.  

He frequently used wingspan to make up for being slightly out of position and was turned around on a few instances. 

However, all that is still the nature of the position, all top-flight CB’s get beaten (as Gilmore was in the Pats shocking final week loss by Devante Parker), and Woodson was truly beaten three times.  However, another sign of a great is that being beaten doesn’t result in a TD, in this his recovery speed was his biggest asset.

Surround a season like Rod Woodson’s 1993 with a series of other of similar – possibly a half notch down – quality seasons, a long career, and impressive numbers and recognition and you have yourself a member of the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.

Click to enlarge—


  1. Great breakdown of an awesome players season.

  2. Yes the NFC dominated the Super Bowls between 1981 and 1997 but its still hard to believe the Steelers of the 90s couldnt win one with the good to great defenders they had.

    Like the Chiefs under Schottenheimer, the Steelers lost some agonizing home playoff games in 92/93, 94/95, 97/98, and the SB in 95/96, which finally convinced them to change QBs ...

    At least Cowher kept the team consistent and kept bringing in new defenders to replace the ones departing in free agency, before finally finding the right QB in Big Ben, for the 2000's.

    Should Cowher have gotten into the HOF before Schottenheimer ?

    I don't believe so, but both coaches preached hard-nosed football that had the intensity and physicality that is rare to see in todays pass happy, flag filled game.

  3. Great read. Would love a breakdown of other DPOY seasons. Thanks for this.

    1. Plans are in the works but these are timely as it requires multiple re-watches of every game.

    2. Fantastic article, thanks.