He wore No. 56, but that wasn't LaMarr Woodley out there for the Steelers last season. He knows it, and the rest of the NFL knows it, too.

“Let's see if he takes the challenge (and improves),” NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said. “If so, you've automatically upgraded the position.”

Getting Woodley back on track — and in the best-possible shape — is a priority as the Steelers go through their 13 spring practices between now and June 13. With longtime Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison gone to Cincinnati, Woodley will be the primary pass rusher charged with creating the pressure upon which coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense thrives.

Woodley couldn't do it last season, generating four sacks in 13 games, and it had a noticeable effect as the Steelers constantly were unable to protect leads or close out close games. They lost five times by three points.

Woodley kept hearing the rumblings that he wasn't in shape, that his repeated injuries — he had hamstring problems in 2011 and '12 — were the result of him playing heavier than he should have.

Woodley blames not his weight or conditioning but a high-ankle sprain Nov. 25 at Cleveland. He missed the next two games and did not have a sack in any of his final four games.

“My performance definitely went down. When you have a high-ankle sprain, it just affects everything you do, whether it's drop back in coverage or (if you're) asked to rush,” Woodley said Wednesday. “You try to fight through injuries, and when you're out there trying to fight through injuries, people are still going to say, ‘He's not being productive.' ”

Woodley looks to be in better shape than he was last season, but he would not disclose his weight or compare it to his weight at this time a year ago. He said the ankle injury healed once the season ended and he could rest.

But he said there wasn't much resting not long after that as he began preparing for what he anticipates will be a comeback season for an elite-level pass rusher who had 44 sacks from 2008-11 but has only four in his past 15 games.

And for that talk that he must keep his weight under control to play better?

“I'm the type of person that laughs at stuff like that, any kind of negative,” Woodley said.

“If you're professional and doing this for so long, whether it's coming up in Little League, you're always going to hear negative stuff, and positive. It comes with the territory. You deal with it, and you continue to march on.”

With a new outside linebacker starting opposite Woodley — either rookie Jarvis Jones or holdout Jason Worilds — the Steelers understand it is imperative to keep Woodley healthy and productive.

“LaMarr has to get on the field,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said. “Part of that is to make sure his hamstrings are in the top shape they need to be in for him to play a (full) year, a solid year and not miss any time. We're going to try to do what we can to make sure we remedy that.”