Pittsburgh Steelers: Tackling the Defense


Dec 21, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt (91) rushes at the line of scrimmage against the Kansas City Chiefs during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 20-12. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Before profiling the best of the defensive tackles in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, looking back at the story written about defensive ends, somehow, inadvertently, “The Diesel” was left off the list. Apologies to Brett Keisel because he was certainly one of the best ever for the Black and Gold. Kiesel who was released in 2015 following another injury that ended his season prematurely again, made a strong comeback last season and was a spark plug for many of the fine performances Dick LeBeau’s unit turned in during the 2014 campaign. The Diesel will be missed this season.

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As for the defensive tackles, immediately Joe Greene, Ernie Stautner, John Banaszak, and Ernie Holmes come to mind from years long ago. Stautner is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Holmes was one crazy dude who’s antics made him popular. With Stautner’s #70 jersey retired, and Joe Greene’s #75, it is already an opinion that those two have been established that they were Pittsburgh’s best ever at defensive tackle. With that said, of the rest of those who played up front on defense there have been several standouts.

The position of nose tackle often falls under the guise of defensive tackle. Instead of separating the two, both positions will be combined in profiling players who manned the nose as well as the men who lined up at tackle. The Steelers have had some of the best nose tackles of all time and when that position is thought of, often the Steelers come to mind.

John Banaszak: Born in rival city Cleveland, Ohio, John Banaszak played in Pittsburgh’s final three Super Bowls of the 1970s starting in Super Bowls XIII and XIV. With 91 games played during his career, made up entirely with the Steelers, Banaszak was a starter in 59 of those. His career began in 1975 as a draftee out of Easten Michigan. His football career did not end with the Black and Gold however as he went on to play three seasons in the United States Football League (USFL) for the Michigan Panthers and Memphis Showboats. At just 242 pounds, Banaszak was playing at about the weight of the normal defensive linemen of his day.

10 years after retiring from active play, J.B. went into coaching first with Washington Jefferson College and then with Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh where he began as an assistant and is now the head coach. Unfortunately, in his rookie season as a head coach, his Colonials finished with a record of 1-10. But during his days manning the front line on defense for Pittsburgh, John Banaszak was very popular with the fans

Gary Dunn: An unsung hero that played for the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted with the 159th overall pick in the 1976 draft was Gary Dunn. After turning in a fine career at the University of Miami, Dunn came to the Steelers after they had already established themselves as a defensive powerhouse. Following a five game appearance in his rookie season, Dunn began to make an impact and played in all 16 games the following season. He would start in 15 of 16 games in 1979 when the Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl and defeated the Los Angeles Rams.

The following season Dunn lost his job at right defensive tackle to Steve Furness but still appeared in all 16 games. He returned in 1981 to start 15 of the 16 games but the next season was limited to just nine games with an injury. In 1984, Dunn started in all 16 games. His best season at sacking the quarterback came in 1982 and 1983 when he registered six for each season. His career came to a close in 1985 where he retired in ninth position among all Steelers defenders for sacks in the team’s history. These days, Dunn is residing in Tavernier, Florida as the owner of a restaurant called Oceanview Inn & Pub.

Gabe Rivera: What if? How many times have those two words been uttered about what might have been in an array of situations. That question can be applied to Gabe Rivera who never had the opportunity to showcase his talent in the NFL all because of a tragic automobile accident.

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Coming out of Texas Tech University, Rivera was highly regarded and drafted by Chuck Noll with Pittsburgh’s first round pick in 1983. Called “Senor Sack while playing for the Red Raiders, Rivera came to the Steelers after registering 321 tackles, 34 for a loss, 14 sacks, 11 pass deflections, and six recovered fumbles in his four years at Texas Tech. With Joe Greene having been retired for two seasons, Noll believed Rivera was the next great defensive lineman. Unlike Greene, Rivera was much faster and Noll had enough confidence in selecting Rivera that he passed on Dan Marino to take the defensive stud.

In the first six games of 1983, Rivera had taken down two quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage but then tragedy struck on October 20 of that season. While driving in the North Hills area of Pittsburgh, Rivera who had been drinking, crashed his car suffering head, neck, chest, and abdominal injuries that left him with memory loss but worse paralyzed from the chest down. Football career over.

It was unfortunate and as Rivera remembers the incident, he reflected with these words: “I don’t remember anything. I know I was drinking and wasn’t wearing a seat belt.” If he hadn’t crashed his car, we might very well be talking today about the great career of one Gabe Rivera.

Ernie Holmes: “Arrowhead.” “Fats.” Two nicknames associated with the colorful and eccentric Ernie Holmes. Once during the season, he shaved an arrow onto his scalp from what hair he had there, thus the nickname. Eerily as it might seem, 25 years after Gabe Rivera crashed his car and suffered paralysis, Ernie Holmes crashed his car while driving alone near Beaumont, Texas but did not survive. He was just 59.

Like Rivera, Holmes failed to fasten his seat belt. Those who remember Holmes will remember an incident that took place 10 years before Gabe Rivera’s accident involving the man who wore #63. Holmes suffered an emotional breakdown during the off-season that year and was on the Ohio Turnpike pursued by a police helicopter.

Holmes pulled a gun and fired shots up at the helicopter. On March 16, 1973, Holmes was formally charged for the shooting. When caught during the incident, the Steelers’ defender had surrendered but tossed the gun aside. Instead of jail time, he received five years probation. Upon examination, Holmes was determined to be suffering from acute paranoid psychosis.

On the football field, Ernie Holmes was a menace. Part of the legendary “Steel Curtain,” along with Joe Greene, Dwight White, and L.C. Greenwood, that front four intimidated and terrorized opposing offenses for years. Holmes would retire after a failed attempt to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then finishing with three games in New England as a Patriot.

Settling in on a ranch in Texas, Holmes became the minister of his own church.

Ernie Holmes took a stab at pro wrestling at Wrestlemania 2 as well as other events and was also in one episode of “The A-Team” during the 1980s. Because of his antics, Ernie Holmes was very popular in Steelers Nation despite his personal issues.

Casey Hampton: “Big Snack.” That is an appropriate nickname for the man who is probably the greatest nose tackle in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 6’1”, 325 pound tackle played his entire 12-year career wearing Black and Gold. A first-round pick at number 19 in 2001, Hampton averaged 14 games played per season for the duration of his career. Only once in 2006 did he play in less that 13 games. In the middle of the defense, Big Snack was a tank that opposing runners found very difficult to get around.

Casey Hampton played in three Super Bowls (XL, XLIII, and XLV) before being released by the Steelers following the 2012 season. From the time he was playing high school football, Hampton was a force on defense. Playing for Ball High School in Galveston, Texas, Big Snack lettered not just in football but also in track starring as a shot putter and discus thrower. His uniform number of 63 was retired from the high school in 2009 becoming just the second in the history of his alma mater to receive that honor.

At the University of Texas, Hampton continued his stardom. In 1999, he was an All-America first-team selection by the Football Writers Association and Associated Press this when Hampton was just a junior. Hampton described his style of play this way: “No one guy can block me. Two guys can probably get it done but never one guy. I can always overpower one.” Once he became a Steeler and established at the nose, he was once asked about the team’s defensive playbook and he was quoted as responding with this simple answer: “I have three plays, straight, right and left.”

Chuck Hinton: With Chuck Hinton, you had a steady, journeyman, defensive tackle that like so many other ex-Steelers, passed away young at the age of 59 in 1999. As a player, Hinton wore the uniform of the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1964 until 1970 when he went to play for the New York Jets before retiring with the Baltimore Colts.

With Pittsburgh, Hinton played in 98 games and was a starter in nearly half of those with 42 starts. For the Steelers, he recovered seven fumbles and returned one for a touchdown.

“I have three plays, straight, right and left” Casey Hampton

A product of North Carolina Central University, Chuck Hinton was originally a second round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns but also a fourth round pick of the Dallas Texans. Hinton’s rookie season however was in Pittsburgh. For the Steelers, Hinton wore jersey number 64.

Chris Hoke: Backing up Casey Hampton was about as far as any player could expect when competing with Big Snack. For Chris Hoke, he probably could have been a starter elsewhere. He was that good.

An undrafted rookie in 2001, it took until 2004 that Hoke would make the regular season roster and in that year, he started in 10 of 14 games he played. With 13 tackles and a sack, Hoke went back to relief pitcher for the remainder of his career as a Steeler that concluded with his retirement in 2011. Hoke would start in just eight more games the rest of the way.

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  • Chris Hoke was a solid contributor and like his teammate Brett Kiesel, was a Brigham Young University product. These days you can find Hoke on Pittsburgh’s KDKA-TV as a post-game analyst for Steelers games.

    Joel Steed: In considering Casey Hampton as the best nose tackles in Pittsburgh Steelers history, Joel Steed might challenge that honor with eight solid seasons at that position for the Black and Gold from 1992 to 1999. Steed like Hampton after him, was a clog in the middle of the Nasty ‘D and was certainly one of the best nose tackles of his era. A University of Colorado product, Steed started in an impressive 103 of 115 games played in Pittsburgh.

    A lot of nose tackles don’t register many sacks, but Steed finished his career with 9 ½. He also made 224 tackles and 79 assists. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, you can easily say Steed was a stud.

    Kimo von Oelhoffen: Ask a member of Steelers Nation about Kimo von Oelhoffen, and odds are the conversation will quickly turn to the 2005 wild card playoff game against the Bengals in Cincinnati.

    Very early in that game, Oelhoffen made a knee-high tackle on Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer that damaged the Bengals signal caller’s anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament, and posterior cruciate ligament. Obviously, Palmer was done for that game and despite Oelhoffen showing immediate concern, he became public enemy number one with Cincinnati fans and many have yet to forgive the Steelers defender for the tackle. Bengals fans use that as an excuse for losing that game.

    Despite that incident, Kimo von Oelhoffen was an outstanding defensive lineman ironically first for those same Bengals, then with Pittsburgh from 2000 to 2005, before rounding out his career with the Jets and Eagles in 2006 and 2007. A native of Kaunakakai, Hawaii, Oelhoffen is of German-Hawaiian and Hawaiian-Portuguese descent from his father and mother respectively. Having attended Boise State University, Oelhoffen was a sixth round pick in 1994.

    In the same year of the Bengals fiasco, Kimo von Oelhoffen and the Steelers rallied to advance to the Super Bowl and defeat the Seattle Seahawks 21-10. Today, he is the owner of a restaurant appropriately called “Kimo’s.” It is located in the area of Bateman Island on the Yakima River in Washington. His venue also houses the Rattlesnake Mountain Brewing Company, a micro brewer.

    As to the Carson Palmer play, Palmer conceded it was all a part of the game of football. Because of the injury however, the NFL Rules Committee made changes to the rules on hitting quarterbacks low. Now termed the “Kimo Clause,” it requires defenders to ensure every opportunity of avoiding a low hit on an opposing quarterback at the knees or below when that player is defenseless and seeking to throw the ball with both feet on the ground. It would be unfortunate that Kimo von Oelhoffen’s legacy be that of one play that went awry.

    Stephon Tuitt: Profiling the defensive tackles brings us to today’s Steelers. Drafted in the second round last year, Stephon Tuitt began to rise above in the latter half of the season. A 6’5”, 303 pound product of the University of Notre Dame, Tuitt could be a star in the making. With four starts in 16 games last season, Tuitt also contributed with 13 tackles, six assists, one sack, and a fumble recovery. His sophomore campaign in 2015 could be a breakout year for the young defensive tackle.

    Coming out of Monroe Area High School in Georgia, Tuitt was ranked a five-star recruit by well renowned Rivals.com and rated as the second-best defensive end in the nation. Tuitt rebuked scholarship offers from Georgia and Georgia Tech to attend Notre Dame. As a Fighting Irishman, Tuitt opted to skip his senior year and instead entered the NFL draft where he became a Pittsburgh Steeler.

    There have been other defensive tackles not profiled that also made their mark on a Steelers’ defensive unit. Some of the more popular players were Orpheus Roye, Brentson Buckner, Kendrick Clancy, Oliver Gibson, Nick Eason, and Ziggy Hood. The profiled players here were certainly men who left behind a legacy that is identified with actions on and off the field.

    Next: Pitt Panthers: Whitehead destined to star early

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