Pittsburgh Steelers: Looking Back At The All-Time Defensive Ends


Dec 7, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward (97) against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers won 42-21. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Ah. Pittsburgh Steelers defenses. What Black and Gold fan doesn’t like talking about the Nasty D’s the Steelers have had for so many years. Even before they began to win Super Bowls in the 1970s, Pittsburgh had defensive players taking the field that put fear into the eyes of opponents.

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The Steelers have been knocking around opposing offenses long before Chuck Noll coached up the first Super Bowl winning team. From Ernie Stautner to Big Daddy Lipscomb for a few seasons, leading up to Mean Joe Greene intimidating players, and from the 1980s on with players who had nasty demeanors like Greg Lloyd, the Pittsburgh Steelers have long established a reputation of fielding defenses that brought pain and hard hitting.

What better way to start profiling the men of the defense than right up front on the line that in the 70s became known as “The Steel Curtain.” Joe Greene anchored that infamous 4-3 defense that would simply beat up on the teams they went up against. Back in those days, the 3-4 defense as not commonly used and therefore, the Steelers lined up four amazing athletes to attacking opposing offenses.

With Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, and combinations of Steve Furness and Ernie Holmes, the Steelers had a formidable front four. Simply because they were so successful, Greenwood and White will be left out of this conversation because their part in the Steel Curtain speaks for itself and those two men far out performed the remaining class of defensive ends throughout Steelers’ history.

The profiling begins with Furness who was with the Steelers from that first-ever playoff season of 1972 until he was done in 1980.

Steve Furness: A defensive end who was a part of four Super Bowl triumphs, Steve Furness was a man who died much too young. Just 49 years of age when struck with a fatal heart attack, Furness was a product of Providence, Rhode Island and a graduate from the University of Rhode Island. Named as one of the that state’s 50 greatest athletes by Sports Illustrated in 1999, Furness was also inducted into his alma mater’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1987.

Originally a fifth round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972, as a rookie, Furness was a part of the team that had made the post-season for the first time in Steelers’ history. He would go on to play in nine seasons with the Steelers starting in 47 of 97 games played. Along the way, Furness recovered eight fumbles and in 16 playoff games registered six quarterback sacks.

Following one final season in Detroit after being released by the Steelers, Furness turned to coaching. At just 32 years old, Michigan State University made him a defensive line coach. He held that role for nine seasons until he came back to the NFL as an Indianapolis Colts’ coach in the same role. Bill Cowher brought him back in The Chin‘s first season as head coach. Furness would stay with the Steelers for just two seasons before ending his football career as a coach.

At a playing weight of just 255, Furness was impressive with his strength and in 1978 finished fourth in CBS’s “Strongest Man in Football Competition.” Not just a Super Bowl champ, Furness was on the coaching staff at Michigan State when they won the Big 10 title in 1987 and 1990.

Bill McPeak: You would have to be pretty old to remember ex-Steeler Bill McPeak. That’s because the last time he put on a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey was 58 years ago. Born locally in New Castle, Pennsylvania, like Steve Furness, McPeak died due to a heart attack at 64 years of age in 1991. But as a player, he stayed close to home after being drafted by Pittsburgh late in the 16th round of the 1948 draft.

Playing his college ball at the University of Pittsburgh, McPeak would play nine seasons in the NFL all with Pittsburgh and be named to three Pro Bowls. McPeak was also a coach and scout in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, and the New England Patriots. In the nine years as a player, Bill McPeak would play in 105 games. He was able to recover seven opponent’s fumbles in those 105 games. In today’s game, McPeak would not be big enough to compete for a defensive line position with a playing weight of just 208 pounds.

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  • John Baker: One of those tough, gritty players of Pittsburgh’s defense during the mid 1960s was one John Baker. At 6’6”, 279 pounds, “Big John” as he would become known, was first a member of the Los Angeles Rams from 1958 to 1961. Following one season in Philadelphia, Baker would come to Pittsburgh and play in 62 games from 1963 to 1967. With eight fumble recoveries in that span, Baker used his size and strength to punish opponents and one such player took the brunt of Baker’s ability in an image etched in NFL lore forever.

    On September 20, 1964, in a game against the mighty New York Giants, Baker took a shot at the great quarterback Y.A. Tittle causing the Pro Football Hall of Famer to suffer a concussion, bruised ribs and for the most part convincing Tittle to retire following that season. Following the massive hit, Tittle was kneeling in the end zone without his helmet, bloodied, and looking forlorn.

    A photographer named Morris Berman working for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette snapped a photo of the fallen hero and in time, that picture not only won a national award, but holds a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Said ex-Steelers great and long time running backs coach Dick Hoak, “He’s famous for that picture. He hit him in the end zone … knocked his helmet off.”

    George Tarasovic: Another name for the old-timers would be that of George Tarasovic. Perhaps a superb representative of the bad teams of the 1950s and 60s for Pittsburgh that field defenses that absolutely beat up on opponents, Tarasovic became known for simply being a monster on the field. At one time, former New York Giants running back Alex Webster when asked about Tarasovic as a player, responded by saying “He’s one of the toughest SOBs I ever played against.”

    Tarasovic would play 14 years in the NFL from 1952 until he retired in 1966, 10 of those seasons with the Steelers. In Pittsburgh, he would amass 11 interceptions as a defensive end and linebacker and recover 14 fumbles. George Tarasovic is also a member of Western Pennsylvania’s Football Hall of Fame. He is still around these days having turned 85 this past May.

    “He’s one of the toughest SOBs I ever played against” Alex Webster on George Tarasovic

    Lloyd Voss: On defense the Pittsburgh Steelers have had a Greg Lloyd and Lloyd Voss. While Greg Lloyd played linebacker, Voss excelled on the defensive line. Originally a Green Bay Packer, Voss came to the Steelers in 1966 where he would play the next six seasons and start in 60 of 123 games. His last season in Pittsburgh was 1971, meaning he would miss making the post season in Pittsburgh’s first appearance ever by one year. Tragically, Voss also lost his life early at the age of 65 in 2007 after reportedly battling liver and kidney disease.

    Keith Gary: Gary is an interesting story in the fact that despite being a first round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, 17th overall in 1981, the Oklahoma University product opted to play in Canada instead as a member of the Montreal Alouettes.

    In 1983 he returned to the NFL and to the team that drafted him. Six seasons later and with 25 sacks, Gary called it quits but had started 35 games in 86 appearances for the Black and Gold. Like John Baker before him, Gary had one single play that defined his defensive career.

    The year was 1983 (October 11) and the Steelers were on Monday Night Football to face rival Cincinnati. Gary caught Bengals’ quarterback Kenny Anderson in the backfield and proceeded to grasp his face mask twisting it and Anderson’s head in a violent motion that left the opposing QB with a season ending injury. Many Bengals fans believed it was a cheap shot.

    Kevin Henry: There’s a saying in Steelers Nation that goes, “once a Steelers fan, always a Steelers fan.” For defensive end Kevin Henry, he began as a player for the Steelers and played his entire career with Pittsburgh. In eight seasons in the NFL all while wearing the Black and Gold, Henry was a solid defender who would start 81 of 117 games played and finish with two interceptions and 14 sacks.

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    From 1997 until 1999, Henry played in every game of the season starting in all 16 in ’97 and ’98. Henry added five fumble recoveries to his stats to go with one forced fumble. His best season came in 1997 when he made 35 tackles and registered 4 ½ sacks.

    Aaron Smith: Aside from the great players of the past, Aaron Smith is probably the finest defensive end the Steelers have had since the end of the 1970s decade. Drafted in the fourth round of the 1999 NFL process, the Northern Colorado product would finish his career in 2011 as the seventh all-time leading sacker for Pittsburgh.

    Plagued with injuries in his final three seasons that limited Smith to just 15 starts in three years, the defensive star had registered nine solid seasons prior to that not including his rookie campaign that saw him play in just six games. But Smith began to shine in 2001 and played in all 16 games util 2006 when the injury bug began to bite. In 2007, Smith started only six games appearing in 11. He was ale to return for a full slate in 2008, but the decline began in 2009 until he finally retired begrudgingly two seasons later.

    Named to Sports Illustrated’s 2000s All-Decade Team, Smith was also a part of Pittsburgh’s Lombardi Trophy winning teams in Super Bowls XL, and XLIII. He made one Pro Bowl in 2004. With 44 career sacks and 453 tackles, Aaron Smith should definitely be considered among Pittsburgh’s best ever.

    Keith Willis: The men with the most sacks in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers (keeping in mind that stats on QB sacks didn’t begin until the 1980s) are Jason Gildon, James Harrison, Joey Porter, and a man who played from 1982 to 1991, Keith Willis.

    Willis was an undrafted rookie free agent in 1982 discovered by Steelers’ scout Bill Nunn. Nunn found a needle in a haystack as Willis would start in every game of his Steelers career for four of the nine years he played in Pittsburgh. Willis would play one additional season in Buffalo and part of another with the Washington Redskins before retiring in 1993.

    Following pro football as a player, Willis went on to coaching first with Slippery Rock University for four years as their defensive line coach and then in the same role with the University of Cincinnati Bearcats. Boston College and North Carolina State came calling in the years from 2001 to 2012 and for the last two years, Willis has served as the defensive line coach in the Canadian Football League with the Montreal Alouettes.

    Cameron Heyward: Finally, there is current defensive end star in the making, Cameron Heyward. Heyward’s father Craig, nicknamed “Ironhead” was a University of Pittsburgh product that had a long NFL career but tragically passed away after suffering from cancer when Cameron was a teenager.

    Craig Heyward was just 39 when he died. His son was a first round pick by the Steelers in 2011 from Ohio State and has played in every game for the four seasons he has been a Steeler. Heyward got his first start in 2013 and has held that position ever since. 2014 was his best season to date 7 1/2 sacks, 35 tackles, and 20 assists. He also defended four passes. Entering the prime of his career, Heyward has set the stage for better performances and he has established himself as a leader on defense.

    Next: Vasquez Vs. Omotoso this Sunday at the MGM Grand in Vegas

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