Greatest Rookie Seasons in Pittsburgh Steelers' History
The Pittsburgh Steelers have the distinction of often being lauded as one of the best-drafting teams in professional sports. Their 1974 draft is the stuff of legend and is only the tip of the iceberg when you consider all of the great work the team has done in the annual selection process.
Steelers rookies don’t usually see the field much, but when they do, they often excel. There have been some great rookie seasons in Pittsburgh’s history. Here’s a look at the best of them.
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When Harris was drafted in 1972, the Steelers were a franchise that hadn’t ever won a playoff game and had only played in one during almost a half-century of existence. That all changed with Harris’ arrival, although he can’t take all of the credit.
He can take some, however. Besides scoring the signature touchdown in the team’s long history, he had a stellar campaign. He started nine of the team’s 14 games and rushed for 1,055 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. He also made 21 receptions for 180 yards—big stuff for a running back in the 1970s.
Harris also won the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award for his work and he helped the Steelers to win their first ever playoff contest with a play that is reverently called the “Immaculate Reception.”
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The rule for many years used to be that rookie quarterbacks did not lead playoff teams. It just didn’t happen. The best a team could hope for with a rookie starting most of the games under center was that they would learn enough to be better the next year.
The learning curve for an NFL quarterback usually lasts a few years. There have been exceptions, however. In recent years, Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco have excelled in their first action, among many others. Ben Roethlisberger, however, was the first and probably the best.
Stepping in part way through a Week 2 contest against Baltimore, Roethlisberger never lost a start until the AFC Championship game as the Steelers finished 15-1 (their only loss that Week 2 contest). While playing in an offense uniquely suited to protecting a rookie, Roethlisberger still put up steady numbers and developed a quick reputation for making big plays when all hope seemed lost.
For his 2004 season, Roethlisberger won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
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As the Steelers moved toward the mid-1980s, their dynastic heyday was all but over. Tasked with replacing their aging or retiring stars, they once again turned to the NFL draft. In 1984, they added receiver Louis Lipps. He would go on to become a top flight player for many years in black and gold.
His rookie season, as he studied with franchise great John Stallworth, was a breakout year. He started eight of the team’s 14 games and brought down 45 catches for 860 yards. He also scored nine touchdowns and recorded 71 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown.
He doubled as a return man for Pittsburgh and broke the record for punt return yardage. For all of his work, he was named to the Pro Bowl and won the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
When Joe Greene was drafted in 1969, most people outside of his small school (North Texas) didn’t know a thing about him. They would come to know him as “Mean Joe” very quickly. By the time he retired after the 1981 season, he was one of the most revered defensive players in the league’s history.
It all started with a campaign that won him NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. That’s remarkable stuff considering the team won only one game and lost 13 under new head coach Chuck Noll. He made the Pro Bowl as well.
While many defensive statistics we use today were not officially kept, Greene was a terror because of his size, speed and attitude. He loved hitting and teams began to prepare for him the way they do now for Troy Polamalu.
Lambert is a member of the team’s most hallowed draft class, the 1974 group that netted four Hall of Fame players. The gap-toothed, savage Lambert quickly became a stalwart on the Pittsburgh defense despite being considered too small for his position.
Lambert started all 14 games of the 1974 regular season and helped the Steelers win their first Super Bowl title against the outmatched Minnesota Vikings. Lambert, like Joe Greene, became a terror to opposing players and he nabbed two interceptions and a fumble recovery to go along with a ton of nasty hits to opposing runners and quarterbacks.
Lambert won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1974, the second player to do so. He also became one of the league’s most iconic and intimidating players and was a linchpin on the team’s four Super Bowl teams in the 1970s.
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The Steelers, as can be seen by some others on this list and by anyone who knows the team’s history, have a history of developing top defensive talents that go on to long, successful careers in black and gold. Bell was not such a player, but that didn’t stop him from having a stellar rookie season.
Drafted in 2001, he started all 16 games in the regular season and became a top blitzing linebacker. He helped the team finish a surprising 13-3 and reach the AFC Championship game. They lost that game to the upstart New England Patriots, but Bell had a great game on the field that day and nearly helped the team stage a comeback.
Despite a Pro Bowl season in 2001, Bell never again approached his production. Injuries nagged him the rest of his time in Pittsburgh and saw his production decline. He had a decent year in 2003, but couldn’t build off of it again in 2004. After that season, he went to the Kansas City Chiefs and struggled through three more years of injury before retiring.