Back in 1971 when the legacy began, like most beginnings this one started quite simple. The Steelers weren't even the team as we know them today or how we knew them yesterday. From the days of "Mean" Joe Greene to the days of Greg Lloyd to the defense of present time, back in '71, the Steelers weren't even in the same breath.
In '71, Pittsburgh would end it's season with a 23-14 loss to the then Los Angeles Rams to finish 6-8. That year the NFL had only 26 franchises and the Steelers defense ranked 18th overall and was dead last against the pass. Not much of a "Steel Curtain."
Yet it was in 1971, when the moniker "Steel Curtain" referring to the team's defense was born. The story goes a local radio station held a contest to name the defense, and the phrase was a play off "Iron Curtain." The sponsored contest was won by Gregory Kronz, then a ninth grader and a nickname was found.
The story continues, while the Steelers struggled through the early part of the '70s, the team was building what would become a defensive dynasty and legacy that would survive generations to follow.
The Early Years ('70s)...
It all started with the 1969 draft under head coach Chuck Knoll, when the team selected DT Joe Greene number four overall. They would also draft his counterpart DE L.C. Greenwood later in the tenth round. The following year the team would add DB Mel Blount and in 1971 DL Dwight White and DL Ernie Holmes would join the group.
The defense would complete its' formation with the additions of linebackers Jam Ham in 1971 and Jack Lambert in 1974. Lambert would become one of the most recognizable faces of the '70s Steelers and one of its' leaders during their dynasty years.
In '74 as a rookie, Lambert would replace middle linebacker Henry Davis as the team's starter and earn the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Lambert, along with his sidekick Jack Ham (a nine-time All-Pro) led a Steeler defense that season, that would finish 10-3-1 and ranked number one overall. By this time, the entire famed defense had earned the name "Steel Curtain."
And so began the legacy.
While there was more to the Steelers defense of the '70s than these two, they were staples in a dominant defense that would win four Super Bowls from 1975-1980. In 1976 the defense was more dominant than any defense had ever been.
In the remaining nine games, the '76 defense didn't allow a single touchdown, completing five shut-outs along the way. During the nine game stretch team allowed just two touchdowns, five field goals, and an average of 3.1 points per game.
The Birth of Blitzburgh...
The defense featured an assortment of talented defensive specialists, DB Rod Woodson, LB Chad Brown, LB Levon Kirkland, and DB Carnell Lake, but it was linebackers Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene, that were the leaders of this new steel town defense.
Unlike the dynasty before it, this new blood of steel workers was every bit as ferocious, but just lacked the height of success that the 70s teams had reached. They were still a working man's team and under LeBeau and Cowher, their hard work would soon pay off.
With Greene and Lloyd, the Steel Curtain was revived and Blitzburgh was turned loose on opposing quarterbacks. In 1992, the defense recorded just 36 sacks, but with LeBeau's new 3-4 zone blitz scheme, organized chaos found new meaning.
In the following year, the Steelers defense brought reckless abandon to new heights and applied pressure like never seen. In 1994, the Steelers would ride the wave of the Terrible Towel to a 12-4 record behind a defense that led the league with 55 sacks.
Like their predecessors, this new Steeler's defense had found prominence and continued the legacy of its' storied franchise.
The Torch is passed...
First it was Ham and Lambert, then came along Greene and Lloyd, and like the gladiators that fought the gridiron battles before them, linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have been passed the torch of Steeler greatness.
Standing on the doorsteps of Super Bowl immortality, under head coach Mike Tomlin, Harrison and Woodley look to continue the tradition of the great Steeler defenses. When 2008 season opened, not many outside of the Pennsylvania area knew how good the Steelers defense really was, but looking back over the past 18 games, most of us have caught up.
This year's version of the Steel Curtain at 12-4 has been as good as any of the past. Ranked number one overall the defense has allowed just under 14 points and 237-yards of offense per game. With 51 sacks (ranked 2nd) this season the Steelers pass defense ranked number one allowing a meager 157-yards per game in the air.
This season's supporting cast has been as equally talented as any other with LB James Farrior (133 tackles), DL Aaron Smith (six sacks), DB Ryan Clark, and DB Troy Polamalu (seven interceptions).
The Steelers throughout their history from the early '70s up until present day have not changed much. Their personality has been constant, a team for the working class, bringing their lunch pails to work everyday. Their defense has not changed much either, still ferocious, hard-hitting, and loves to get dirty in the trenches.
In the postseason, Harrison and Woodley and company have continued the tradition of the Steel Curtain, limiting their opponents to 244-yards of offense per game, forcing six turnovers, and recording seven sacks in two games. Much like they did during the regular season, the Steelers relied on their defense to dominate and offense to make big plays
Now that the Steelers are on the verge of making history with a possible sixth Super Bowl title, it appears the torch has been passed. But with unfinished business for this year's version of the "Steel Curtain", on Super Sunday they will take the field hoping to continue the tradition defensive dominance and supremacy.
For those Steelers fans on Sunday that wait in anticipation, long wave the Terrible Towel.
By David G. Ortega