Pittsburgh Steelers: The Best Of The Best

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Oct 26, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; General view of the NFL logo on the goal post pad before the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing With The Legacy Of The Black And Gold

Now comes the fun part of the story. Defense. A favorite topic of most Steelers fans is speaking about the great defensive players that Pittsburgh has fielded throughout their history. Some of the best ever in the National Football League played their football in the Steel City. There have been so so many great defenders for the Black and Gold and there are more than a handful in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It all starts up front.

Defensive Tackles. Let’s put one of the greatest ever on the table before we really begin the analysis. Mean Joe Greene. There is no other closer competitor. So the task now is to pick a second tackle to join Greene as the elite of the elite. Arguments might suggest Hall of Famer Ernie Stautner. While speaking of defensive tackles, for argument’s sake, we’ll separate the nose tackles from the d-tackles.

"“That man ain’t human. He’s too strong to be human” Jim Parker on Ernie Stautner"

Nov 2, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Joe Greene in a ceremony to retire his number during halftime of the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

So Casey Hampton and Joel Steed will be discussed apart from Joe Greene’s position. With that said, perhaps Ernie Holmes could challenge Stautner or maybe just maybe John Banaszak or Gary Dunn, but given Stautner’s toughness and gritty character, he gets the nod in joining Greene as the best ever. Former NFL player Jim Parker reflected on his playing days and having to line up across from Stautner:

“That man ain’t human. He’s too strong to be human. He’s the toughest guy in the league to play against because he keeps coming head first. Swinging those forearms wears you down. That animal used to stick his head in my belly and drive me into the backfield so hard that, when I picked myself up and looked around, there was a path chopped through the field like a farmer had run a plow over it.”

Nose Tackle is considered a defensive lineman and is sometimes spoken about with the defensive tackles. But in Pittsburgh, they made that position a force of its own with players like Joel Steed, Oliver Gibson, and Big Snack Casey Hampton. All three players were outstanding in their own right and in the case of Hampton, he had established himself as a run stopper, a plug in the middle of the defense, and one of the best nose tackles during his playing days. Therefore, greatest nose tackle goes to Casey Hampton.

Defensive End. Lining outside of those defensive tackles are the ends. It used to be a 4-3 defense the Steelers utilized and thus creating “The Steel Curtain.” Later, the defense switched to the 3-4 and it has remained to this day. So now you will see just three men up front and four linebackers. But for history’s sake, two of the greatest defensive ends in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers will be provided.

From the Steel Curtain we have L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White. Also playing at that time were Steve Furness another great defensive end. Earlier years had John Baker playing the position as well as a very mean and tough George Tarasovic. Keith Gary played the position well in the 1980s.

Aaron Smith brought stardom to the d-line from 1999 through the 2000’s. Keith Willis was a fine end and Cameron Heyward seems to be progressing to being one of the league’s best. But choosing two? You can’t deny the domination of the Steelers’ defense in the 1970’s. L. C. Greenwood with his enormous height and wingspan was a terror in rushing opposing quarterbacks.

Dwight White was a fierce competitor once playing in a Super Bowl despite being very ill. He quietly was one of the finest defensive ends in his era. It’s extremely difficult to argue against those two, both perhaps worthy of a Hall of Fame induction, especially Greenwood who shamefully has yet to get in. With kudos to all the d-ends mentioned, the two greatest would have to be L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White.

Linebacker. Now comes the most difficult selection process in determining an all-time team. The position of linebacker is where the Pittsburgh Steelers have shined the most. At this position lies the biggest strength of the Steelers. In franchise history, the names have been many that have established themselves as league best and in some case NFL best ever. Asking a Steelers fan to name the four greatest linebackers in the history of the team would cause a long delay and a request to provide a few days to think about it. But placed on the spot and asked to spit our four names, here’s how this writer would see it.

Dec 28, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison (92) at the line of scrimmage against the Cincinnati Bengals during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 27-17. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If credentials play a part in the selection process of choosing the four greatest linebackers in Pittsburgh Steelers history, then how can one deny the two Jacks, Jack Lambert and Jack Ham. Lambert played with such tenacity and attitude and it didn’t matter who was in front of him, he took on all comers. Ham played with finesse and much more like a machine. Methodical is a good word to describe the play of Jack Ham.

But nearly on the level of their caliber was James Farrior, Jason Gildon, Levon Kirkland, and Greg Lloyd. Not as great but very close were Joey Porter, Andy Russell, Dennis Winston, Bryan Hinkle, Larry Foote, James Harrison, Kevin Greene (albeit a short period), Mike Merriweather, Lawrence Timmons, and Hardy Nickerson. My first two choices are Jack Lambert and Jack Ham. My next and final two would have to be Greg Lloyd, and James Harrison.

Why you might ask? Not just because they can be dominant at times, but for how they played. They played (and in Harrison’s case still playing), with the same intensity as Lambert once did. They also play hard. Their attitude and aggressiveness went a long way and with Harrison, his style has not changed one iota as he brings it in for another season in 2015.

Safety. With Troy Polamalu‘s retirement in full swing, Steelers Nation awaits the next great safety. Pittsburgh has certainly had some great defensive backs but at safety, there have only been a few. The two all-time choices here would easily be Troy Polamalu first. One might say Donnie Shell next but Mike Wagner might have something to say about that.

There have been other respectable safeties in Glen Edwards, Darren Perry, Paul Martha, Mike Logan, certainly Ryan Clark, and Thomas Everett. But Donnie Shell was an undrafted rookie who went on to become a special teams nightmare for opponents and then a starting safety who could be safely mentioned in a possible Hall of Fame enshrinement. The vote here is for Polamalu and Shell.

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  • Cornerbacks. Since the days of Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake, the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary at the cornerback position has been lacking big time. No disrespect to Ike Taylor, but he is simply not in the same class as the two fore mentioned. But above those there is the first choice as an all-time selection at cornerback, Mel Blount. The Pro Football Hall of Fame resident is probably one of the greatest cornerbacks in the history of pro football. Blount was a monster at the position.

    Big in size and the hitting ability of a runaway truck, Blount struck fear in opposing receivers. He dominated at his position and kept quarterbacks on the other side throwing elsewhere. While Carnell Lake was also an outstanding corner, Rod Woodson has been the closest player to a Mel Blount since Blount retired. Woodson could do much more than Blount in the all-around game however, providing superior speed as a former track star and also having the ability to return kickoffs and punts. Woodson like Blount has a home in Canton, Ohio in the hallowed halls of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

    Aug 10, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers former defensive back Rod Woodson on the field before the Steelers host the New York Giants at Heinz Field. The New York Giants won 18-13. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    Credit to the other great corners though including Ike Taylor, among them William Gay, Jack Butler, Willie Williams, and Dwayne Woodruff. The two best when all is said and done? Blount and Woodson.

    Punter and Long Snapper Rounding out the defense are the punters and the long snappers. Neither position has provided much greatness in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers but there have been players who did excel at the position. Beginning with the long snappers who have a very important role in football but don’t receive much recognition. There are really only two to choose from in Steelers’ history. It’s either current incumbent Greg Warren or Mike Schneck. The choice here Greg Warren. These men snap the ball to place kicker holders and to the punter.

    Choosing the greatest punter for Pittsburgh since 1933 boils down to either Craig Colquitt, Bobby Walden, or Josh Miller for this writer. “The Old Man” Bobby Walden was a fan favorite and Josh Miller was a solid punter, but for consistency’s sake and ability, the all-time pick at punter should be Craig Colquitt.

    "“The single most important thing we had in the Steelers of the 1970s was an ability to work together” Chuck Noll"

    Head Coach, Offensive & Defensive Coordinator. Rounding out the selections for an all-time Pittsburgh Steelers team are those men who guide the players to how the job should get done. For offensive coordinators, Tom Moore is one of the most respected coaches in the league. It would have been fun to see how Ron Erhardt would have done with the weapons Ben Roethlisberger has at his disposal these days. Chan Gailey was more of an innovator but in pointing a finger at just one who might be the best the choice here would be Ron Erhardt. On the defensive side, it’s a no-brainer. Dick LeBeau.

    As for head coach, there are only three to seriously consider and they are the last three to to coach this team. Mike Tomlin‘s legacy is not set in stone yet and between Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll, the major differences are not the victories and losses but number of Super Bowls and the talent they once possessed. My choice for greatest head coach of all-time would have to be Chuck Noll simply because of his ability to find talent and build a team. When asked about the success of his dynasty teams, Noll once said: “The single most important thing we had in the Steelers of the 1970s was an ability to work together.”

    When  Chuck Noll was head coach, many of his teams were not just dominant, but he had 53 players many of the backups having the talent to be starters elsewhere. On the declining years as head coach, Noll did experience some problems keeping a superior talented team on the field and winning games, but throughout the 1970s he accumulated talent for one team that has probably never been matched since or before Noll took over. Bill Cowher might run a close second, but the greatest coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers in their entire history would have to be Chuck Noll.

    Agree or disagree Steelers Nation? Your opinions are welcome to the author at sportswriter.harv@gmail.com.

    Next: Pittsburgh Steelers: Best Coaches All-Time

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