Pittsburgh Steelers Are Linebacker U – Part One


Aug 10, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Larry Foote (50) on the sidelines against the New York Giants during the first half at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

In profiling the Pittsburgh Steelers history of linebackers, just as Penn State University is known as “Linebacker U,” the Pittsburgh Steelers would be known on a professional level in the same capacity.

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In fact, I would challenge any NFL team to say they have had a finer history for successful linebackers than what the Pittsburgh Steelers have put on the field. Simply put, the Steelers have fielded some of the greatest linebackers in the history of the National Football League. With such a rich history at linebacker, the profiles will be broken down into a three-part series.

We begin with part one. All three areas of linebacker will be profiled. Separation between outside, inside, and middle linebacker will be voided but the quagmire of doing such a task is this…where do you begin? Right off the top, it’s easy to say Lambert, Ham, Russell, Lloyd just to begin.

But the list of great linebackers and even those who reached near greatness is long. In polling the players at linebacker, Jack Lambert and Jack Ham must be left off the list, not just because they are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but there can be little argument that they are in fact, probably the two best ever that played for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Without ranking the remaining players who played linebacker, random profiles will follow for the three spots at linebacker that these days are known as the Sam Linebacker, Mike Linebacker, and Will Linebacker. Those three refer to the strong side, middle, and weak side linebackers respectively. It begins with a man who was the predecessor to Jack Ham in “Dobre Shunka’s” style of play.

Andy Russell: #34 for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1963 until his retirement in 1976 (Russell did not play in 1964 and 1965 as he was serving in the Army) exemplified technique at playing the position of linebacker. Russell was not your type of linebacker that would beat you silly such as Dick Butkus did, rather played to the ball handler with precision and superb tackling. Suffering through the losing years of the 1960s, Russell played long enough to be a two-time Super Bowl champion with Pittsburgh when they brought home the first two Lombardi Trophies in Super Bowl IX and X.

Originally a product of the University of Missouri, Russell was not drafted until the 16th round of the 1963 NFL draft. But over the course of his career, Andy Russell was named to seven Pro Bowls; was a First-Team All-Pro in 1975; and was Pittsburgh’s team Most Valuable Player in 1971.

Many diehard Steelers fans will fondly remember one play that took place on December 27, 1975. Russell set an NFL record for longest fumble return for a touchdown in a playoff game. The opponents were the Baltimore Colts and the Steelers were victorious by a 28-10 count. Unfortunately for Russell, it seemed to take him eons to get to the end zone and many jokes arose from that play. Ask Andy Russell himself and he may give you an answer that he provided years ago.

That play has been a source of embarrassment for me for years. There have been so many jokes. Ray Mansfield was the one that said NBC cut to a commercial during the return and came back to catch me score the touchdown. Nonetheless, it was a memorable play in my career.”

In 1972 during the infamous “Immaculate Reception” victory over the Oakland Raiders, Russell had an interception in that game. For his career, he started in 123 of 168 games, made 18 interceptions during the regular season, and added another touchdown in 1973. Hall of famer?

Some might think so but he has yet to make it to Canton, Ohio and be honored among other Steelers greats. Still, he has been honored with being inducted into the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame in 1983; the University of Missouri Hall of Fame in 1993; and was a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 75th Anniversary All-Time Team so named in 2007.

“That play has been a source of embarrassment for me for years” Andy Russell on a famed fumble recovery

Kendrell Bell: Injuries can often end, hamper, or derail a great career for a player that might be headed in that direction. Such is the case for Kendrell Bell. Drafted in the second round in 2001, the former Georgia Bulldog had one of the finest defensive rookie seasons in Pittsburgh Steelers’ history.

Playing the right inside linebacker position and immediately named starter coming out of training camp, Bell proceeded to register nine sacks and make 70 tackles. He was a beast on the field and was awarded for his performance by being named the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He also made the Pro Bowl and was a second team All-Pro. It appeared the Steelers had their next great linebacker.

The first signs of being injury prone began at the start of the 2002 season. He would miss four games and came back to start in the remaining 12 only getting four sacks and making 37 tackles. 2003 represented a full campaign and he made the most tackles of his career with 80 adding 19 assists.

In that season’s playoff run, facing the Cleveland Browns, Bell injured his knee. He forced himself to play the following week after Pittsburgh knocked off the Browns and were playing the Tennessee Titans, but re-injured the knee. A season later, the knee gave out again and Bell missed the first eight weeks. Once he came back in week 11 against Cincinnati, again Kendrell Bell suffered a knee injury.

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Bill Cowher had seen enough and cut ties with Bell during the off-season. The Kansas City Chiefs gave the young linebacker another chance and while starting in 14 of 16 games in K.C., Bell was clearly not the same animal he was during his early years in the ‘Burgh. He would start another 14 of 16 in 2006, and in 2007 the knee injury virus bit Kendrell Bell again and with appearances in just 11 games without a start, he retired.

These days, Kendrell Bell and his wife are running an organization they started called “The Bellievers Foundation.” It’s purpose it so assist young people in their endeavors to become successful via charitable efforts in the community as well as serving as an assistant strength coach at Bell’s alma mater the University of Georgia’s football team. You can read more on The Bellievers web site

Chad Brown: Call him a “snake charmer” or call him a great linebacker, but Chad Brown‘s career began as a Pittsburgh Steeler. The year was 1993 and Brown like Kendrell Bell was a second round pick in the NFL draft.

As a rookie, Chad Brown appeared in all 16 games and was a starter for nine of those. Because of an injury, Brown started and played in only 10 games during his third season and then in 1996 he brought home 13 sacks in 14 games as well as making 50 tackles and assisting on 31 others. That would be his final season in Black and Gold before he took the free agency route and signed with the Seattle Seahawks.

In Seattle, Brown became a bigger star and was named to Seattle’s 35th Anniversary Team. He started in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl XXX loss to Dallas but made three Pro Bowls, one with Pittsburgh and the other two with the ‘Hawks.

After eight seasons in Seattle, Brown signed with New England only to return to the Steelers for one season in 2006 before making a curtain call with the Patriots in 2007. For that one reunion year with Bill Cowher, Chad Brown played in just eight games, getting only one sack and making just three tackles.

As for being a snake charmer, Brown always had a thing for collecting reptiles. He had opened a business of selling non-venomous snakes and the store was called “Pro Exotics.”

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  • Tragically, a fire erupted in his business in September of 2011 that destroyed the building housing his animals. Brown’s store of exotic pets at the time was one of the nation’s biggest. Fortunately for the human kind, no one was hurt in the blaze. However, it was believed that around 2,000 animals lost their lives. Steelers fans however, will remember Chad Brown for his bite on defense.

    Dennis Winston: Just call Dennis Winston “Dirt.” After all, that was his nickname and no one in Steelers Nation probably remembers by his birth name. Dirt Winston joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1977 via the NFL draft and would play with Pittsburgh through 1981.

    In Super Bowl XIV, he replaced Jack Ham in the victory over the Los Angeles Rams. After four seasons in New Orleans, Winston return to the Steelers for two more seasons before retiring. Winston’s best season was in 1979 when he started in 10 of 16 games.

    James Farrior: The Pittsburgh Steelers have established a reputation of not chasing after big name free agents during the off-seasons. But following the 2001 season, the New York Jets released former #1 pick James Farrior who was chosen from the University of Virginia with the eighth pick overall.

    Bill Cowher and the front office jumped on the opportunity to sign Farrior and it became one of the most successful free agency signings in the history of the team. Farrior became a tackling machine for the Steelers and in 10 seasons as a linebacker for Pittsburgh, Farrior became a two-time Super Bowl champ; twice named to the Pro Bowl; two-time All-Pro; and became the team’s M.V.P. In 2004.

    Additionally in 10 years with Pittsburgh, James Farrior was an ironman. He started in all 154 games for which he played; had eight interceptions; scored one touchdown; made 12 fumble recoveries; 30 sacks; and averaged 73 tackles per season. The greatest asset Farrior probably possessed was his consistency.

    When opponents ran to his side, it was almost a guarantee he would make the tackle. After 10 solid seasons with the Steelers, Farrior was released following the 2011 season and he made the decision to retire instead of extending his career. In his final season in Black and Gold, Farrior was still Mr. Steady making a combined total of 78 tackles in 14 games.

    Over the course of his 15-year career, James Farrior averaged 94 tackles a season. He added 35 ½ sacks and 11 interceptions. For those who were unaware Farrior had a nickname, it was “Potsie” placed upon him by his parents for two reasons…as a child, he bore a pot belly and additionally because his parents were fans of the show Happy Days and started calling their son Potsie from the character in the show.

    Bryan Hinkle: In the mid to late 1980s, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a stretch from 1985 to 1988 where they failed to make the playoffs. The team was struggling but there were still some great players on the field.

    Unsung Bryan Hinkle was one of them. Drafted in the sixth round with the 156th pick overall, Hinkle was an outstanding linebacker for the Steelers who failed to make the regular season roster his rookie year but broke through in 1982 appearing in nine games. The next year, he played in every game of the season. Then in 1984, Hinkle played and started in 15 games. His career began to take off.

    In 12 seasons all with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bryan Hinkle started in 116 of 163 games and finished with 15 interceptions and 22 ½ quarterback sacks. He also recovered 11 fumbles in that span and had three defensive touchdowns.

    Larry Foote: Linebacker Larry Foote has seen plenty of professional football. Heading into the 2015 season, it will be Foote’s 14th in the NFL. Starting as a Steeler in 2002 when he was a fourth round draft pick, Foote played until 2008 when Lawrence Timmons came along and the veteran was released.

    Foote would sign with the Detroit Lions and return to his birth city. Lions’ linebacker Ernie Sims was wearing Foote’s jersey number 50, so 55 became his new number. Only on a one-year contract, Foote returned to the Steelers in 2010 where he would play four more years before being released again.

    Now with the Arizona Cardinals, Foote was an excellent linebacker while with the Black and Gold. Of 158 games in Pittsburgh, Foote started in 105. His best season was in 2005 when Larry Foote made 76 tackles; added 26 assists; was on the end of one recovered fumble; had three sacks; and was responsible for one safety. As a member of the Black and Gold, Foote finished his Steelers career with 21 sacks and three interceptions, as well as recovering seven fumbles.

    Larry Foote is a man of character and for proof of that, in 2008, a 10-year old boy named Mark Brown Williams tragically died in a drowning accident tat took place on the Rouge River in Michigan. This was a spot that as a kid, Foote also played. Without any relationship to the young child, Foote paid for his funeral as the sad story struck a chord with the pro football player.

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