The Pittsburgh Steelers: A Legacy of Linebackers
I had initially considered putting together a complete "all-time" team for the Steelers in honor of their berth in Super Bowl XLIII. However, I ran into quite a problem—the team has had so many good, great, and even exceptional linebackers over the last 40-plus years that narrowing them down to three or four would prove quite an arduous task.
This is not entirely uncommon: some teams just seem to have a knack for acquiring the right players at certain positions (i.e. Packers wide receivers, Chiefs defensive backs, Cowboys offensive linemen, etc...). As for the Steelers, their primary concentration of excellence just happens to be the linebacking position. This, of course, does not imply that the team has lacked in other areas—they've produced an ample amount of talent at defensive line (at least a dozen worth mentioning), offensive line (again, no less than a dozen), defensive backfield (ten or more notables), running back, and so on.
However, the linebacker position stands head and shoulders above the others.
Thus, I've listed 18 players who excelled as Steelers linebackers in one form or another during their careers. I'll leave it up to readers to decide who is the best of the bunch.
Personally, I would choose the three men pictured above and Greg Lloyd for the top positions, but that is just my opinion. Included in the list are long-term but unspectacular performers, short-term, but Pro Bowl caliber standouts, and of course the current unit who've helped the team to their second Super Bowl in four years.
Needless to say, I've probably left off a few players who some readers may deem worthy of inclusion, but I had to draw the line somewhere.
That being said, I welcome and encourage any comments.
John Reger (1955-63)
Many readers may not have heard of him, but Reger was a defensive standout on some very paltry Steeler teams during the late '50s and early '60s.
He played alongside such greats as Jack Butler, Ernie Stautner, Gene Lipscomb and Myron Pottios during his career, making three straight Pro Bowls ('59-'61) and compiling nine interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries for the Steelers.
He may have received more attention had he played for the Packers or Giants. Nonetheless, he began a tradition of linebacking excellence in Pittsburgh.
Andy Russell (1963, '66-'76)
A 16th-round pick in the 1963 draft, Russell left football after his rookie season for a two-year stint with the U.S. Army. He returned to the Steelers for the '66 season and quietly became one of the NFL's better linebackers despite playing on some lousy teams.
He made his first Pro Bowl following the '68 season, and followed that by making six straight from '70 through '75. Russell was the original member of the "Steel Curtain," and he literally watched the dynasty build around him over the latter half of his career.
His service and patience paid off when Pittsburgh became Super Bowl Champions following the '74 and '75 campaigns.
In his 12 seasons, Russell played in 168 games, notching 18 interceptions—one returned for a touchdown, 10 fumble recoveries, and he was usually atop or near the top of the team's tackling leader board.
Jack Ham (1971-82)
Not only is Ham the best linebacker in Steelers' history, but he probably ranks among the top 10 of all-time at the position.
Possessing the perfect combination of intelligence, instincts, and athleticism, Ham excelled at every facet of linebacking.
He was able to snuff out running plays before they developed, he could cover any tight end in the league, and he had the uncanny skill of 'hiding' in the defensive backfield and breaking to the ball the moment the opposing quarterback made his release.
He was a starter for his entire career, making eight consecutive Pro Bowls ('73-'80) and earning All-Pro status six straight years ('74-'79). Ham played 162 regular season games with the Steelers (starting all but one), racking up 25 unofficial sacks, 32 interceptions (one TD) and 21 fumble recoveries (one TD).
He was a first-ballot Hall of Fame pick in 1988, and he was named to the NFL All-Decade Team of the '70s and the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Loren Toews (1973-83)
Since he spent the majority of his career as a back-up and spot-duty player (he was a starter just four of his 11 seasons), Toews may not be remembered by many outside of the Steeler fan base.
Steeler die-hards no doubt remember him as an unselfish performer who was an integral part of four Super Bowl championship teams.
Toews probably could have been a starter on most NFL squads, but he chose spend his career as a role-player in a winning system, which he did admirably.
Though he rarely started, he saw action in 149 regular season contests with the Steelers, making four interceptions, ten fumble recoveries and two safeties.
Toews did have the honor of starting in the Steelers' Super Bowl XIII and XIV victories.
Jack Lambert (1974-84)
The snarling, tenacious Lambert became the poster-boy of the Steel Curtain defense upon his arrival in 1974.
His grizzled appearance and missing front teeth just accentuated the wrath and ferocity that burned within, making him the perfect complement to the cool-headed and technically proficient Jack Ham.
Lambert made the Pro Bowl every season except for his first and last, and he was an All-Pro choice six times (including five straight from '79 through '83). Recurring foot injuries kept him out of action for much of 1984, and he retired at the end of that season.
A ball-hawker, Lambert picked off 28 passes during his career and made 17 fumble recoveries—with an NFL-leading eight in '76. He also racked up 22.5 sacks and made over 1,400 tackles for the Steelers (both totals unofficial).
Like Ham, Lambert was voted into Canton in his first year of eligibility.
Robin Cole (1977-87)
Cole spent the early portion of his career being overshadowed by his fellow members of the Steel Curtain defense, and he didn't become a regular starter until his fourth season.
He proved to be a dutiful and competitive performer once given the chance, not missing a single game from '82 through '87 and earning a Pro Bowl invitation following the '84 season.
All told, Cole played in 150 games for the Steelers (126 starts), making 27 unofficial sacks, 14 fumble recoveries and five interceptions.
David Little (1981-92)
Little spent his first three seasons as a backup while Ham, Lambert and Loren Toews finished out their fine careers, eventually assuming the starting LILB role in '84. He held that job through the '89 season, switching to RILB for his final three seasons.
Little proved to be adept at tracking down running backs, and he was adequate at pass coverage, but his steady play was rarely noticed, as the Steelers were a very average team during most of his career.
He was finally recognized with a Pro Bowl berth in 1990—his 10th season in the league. Little played in 179 games for the Steelers, making 10 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries and annually ranking high on the team's tackling list.
Bryan Hinkle (1982-93)
Like David Little, Hinkle had the unenviable distinction of following in the footsteps of Hall-of-Famers Lambert and Ham and playing on some very unspectacular Steeler teams during the '80s and early '90s.
Nonetheless, Hinkle was a well-rounded athlete who saw action in 163 games for the Steelers, playing both ROLB and LOLB over the course of his career. His totals include 22.5 sacks, 15 interceptions (two TDs), 11 fumble recoveries (one TD), and he usually ranked among the team's tackling leaders during his years as a starter ('84-91).
Hinkle never was invited to the Pro Bowl, but he was a second team All-Pro in '86 and was voted the Steelers' MVP for that season.
Mike Merriweather (1982-87)
Merriweather played in every game his first two seasons without raising too many eyebrows before coming out of nowhere in 1984 to register 15 sacks (fifth in the NFL) and make the Pro Bowl.
Though he never came close to equalling his '84 sack total, Merriweather did receive Pro Bowl invitations in both '85 and '86 for his solid all-around play during those seasons.
His performance slipped somewhat in '87, but Merriweather felt he was worth more than his contract indicated, and he sat out the entire 1988 season. He left Pittsburgh on a bitter note, being traded to the Vikings for a first-round draft choice prior to the 1989 campaign.
Merriweather played in 85 games during his six Steeler seasons, recording 31 sacks, 11 interceptions (with two TD returns) and nine fumble recoveries.
Hardy Nickerson (1987-92)
Nickerson spent the first six years of his outstanding career playing in the Steelers' 3-4 defense with fellow linebackers Greg Lloyd, David Little and Bryan Hinkle.
He played well enough, usually ranking among the team's tackling leaders, but it was Lloyd, cornerback Rod Woodson and safety Carnell Lake who were the heart of the Steelers defense during Nickerson's tenure.
He was sent to Tampa Bay in '93, where he thrived in the Bucs' 4-3 defense at the middle linebacker position, earning five trips to the Pro Bowl and a spot on the NFL's All-Decade Team of the '90s.
Steeler fans can only wonder "what if.....?"
Greg Lloyd (1988-97)
Perhaps the most feared player in the NFL during the early '90s, Lloyd rivals Jack Lambert for the distinction of being the toughest and meanest player in Steeler history. He possessed a nasty disposition, which he displayed both on the field and off, but it was his skillful play that earned him the respect of fans and fellow players.
After missing all of '87 and half of '88 with injuries, Lloyd became a starter in '89. His ability was finally rewarded in '91 when he made the first of five straight Pro Bowls, also earning All Pro honors from '93 to '95.
His remarkable string of excellence came to an end when a knee injury ruined his '96 season. Lloyd played in 12 games in '97, but was released prior to '98, and he spent his last season with Carolina. During his ten Steeler seasons, Lloyd made 53.5 sacks, 10 interceptions, forced 34 fumbles, made 15 recoveries and over 700 tackles.
Levon Kirkland (1992-2000)
Despite being one of the bulkiest (6'1", over 270lbs) linebackers in NFL history, Kirkland possessed deceptive quickness and agility, which made him effective against both the run and the pass.
He became the starting LOLB in his third year and remained there until the end of his tenure in Pittsburgh. He didn't miss a starting opportunity from '95 to 2000, and he saw action in every Steeler game during his nine seasons, during which he recorded 18.5 sacks, 11 interceptions, forced 14 fumbles, recoverd nine fumbles (with one TD) and made over 800 tackles.
He was a Pro Bowler in '96 and '97 and an All-Pro for the latter.
Kevin Greene (1993-95)
Greene spent his first eight seasons with the Rams, where he eventually became one of the top pass-rushing linebackers in the league.
Once joining the Steelers, he built upon that reputation by logging 12 1/2 sacks in '93 and an NFL-leading 14 in '94.
During his brief stint in Pittsburgh, Greene totalled 35 1/2 sacks and made the Pro Bowl twice ('94 and '95). His outstanding '94 season also earned him an All-Pro selection and his 160 career sacks are the most ever by a linebacker.
Jason Gildon (1994-2003)
After spending his first two seasons as a backup, Gildon became a starter after Greg Lloyd suffered an injury during the opening game of 1996.
He held the starting LOLB job for the remainder of his tenure in Pittsburgh, never missing a game or starting opportunity from '97 to '03.
During that span, he made three straight Pro Bowls ('00-'02) and received All-Pro status in '01.
Three times during his career he posted double-digit sack totals, and he left the Steelers as their all-time leader in that category with 77. Gildon also forced 15 fumbles for the Steelers and made 11 recoveries, with three TDs.
Joey Porter (1999-2006)
A third-round draft choice, Porter became the starting ROLB in 2000 and responded with 10.5 sacks and 74 tackles. His play improved over the following years, and he made the Pro Bowl three times from '02 to '05, with an All-Pro nod following the '02 season.
The Steelers made a questionable move when they released Porter prior to the 2007 season in order to avoid paying him a $1 million bonus. He evetually signed with Miami and returned to Pro-Bowl form by registering 17.5 sacks in 2008.
During his eight years in Pittsburgh, Porter played in 122 games, logging 60 QB sacks, ten interceptions (one TD return), 17 forced fumbles, and eight recoveries (two TDs).
Luckily, the Steelers have managed to succeed in his absence.
James Harrison (2002, '04-current)
After being cut by the Steelers in both '02 and '03, Harrison finally made the team in '04. He saw minimal duty during the next three seasons, but finally earned the starting ROLB job in 2007 and responded with a stellar effort.
During that campaign he started all 16 games, recording 8.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 98 tackles, earning team MVP honors and a Pro Bowl invitation.
He built on his success in 2008, making 16 sacks (fourth in the NFL) and earning his first All-Pro selection as well as NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.
James Farrior (2002-current)
Farrior came to the Steelers prior to the 2002 season after five mediocre seasons with the Jets, and has been a perfect fit in the Steelers' defense.
Since joining the team, he's played in 108 games (all starts), posting 19.5 sacks, seven interceptions (one TD return), 10 forced fumbles, eight recoveries and nearly 800 tackles.
His fine play during the 2004 season earned him his only Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections to date, and his renewed contract prior to the 2008 season should keep him in Pittsburgh through 2012.
Larry Foote (2002-current)
Foote spent his first two seasons as a reserve, playing mostly on special teams, before becoming the starting RILB in 2004.
Though he isn't as renowned as teammates Farrior and Harrison (and formerly Porter), Foote is a solid performer who has improved each year he's been in the NFL.
Through the 2008 season, he's seen action in 110 games (67 starts), making 14.5 sacks, three interceptions and over 500 tackles.