The 2008 Steelers’ defense entered the discussion as possibly the greatest defense in history. They were awe-inspiring at times in the way they attacked opposing offenses and were equally ferocious against both the run and pass.
There are plenty of other defenses in that same discussion to include the 1976 Steel Curtain, the 1986 Bears’ maulers, and the 2000 Ravens to name just a few.
The heart and soul of that 2008 Steelers’ defense was the linebacker corps, although the defensive line and secondary were both plenty good.
This year’s linebacker corps will likely be even better. The squad will return the league’s defensive MVP, a guy who has recorded eight playoff sacks in four games, and an inside linebacker who is a tackling machine.
That would be James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, and James Farrior. Gone is the ever dependable Larry Foote to be replaced by 2007 first round pick, Lawrence Timmons.
Based on his stellar play on passing downs in 2008, this will almost certainly be an upgrade. Dick LeBeau will have a similar set of toys to play with as what he had when the Steelers rode their linebackers to the 1995 Super Bowl with Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland, and Chad Brown.
During that year, the Steelers had two outstanding pass rushers on the outside in Lloyd and Greene, a tackling machine in the middle with Kirkland, and an athletic inside linebacker who could attack the quarterback through the center of the line in Brown.
That is exactly what they will have this year with Lawrence Timmons fitting more in the mold of Chad Brown and James Farrior remaining as the resident tackling machine and defensive leader.
Last year, Harrison and Woodley paired as one of the great pass rushing duos in the NFL. Even at that, I don’t think Woodley has peaked yet, adjusting to the longer NFL seasons. His stats, and play, slowed during the second half of the season until he went on an absolute tear in the playoffs.
With the added athleticism of Timmons, experience of Woodley, and with Pro Bowl veterans James Harrison and James Farrior back, opposing quarterbacks and rushers are in for tough times in 2009.
And they are all the better because Dick Lebeau knows how to use their tremendous talent. Ron Jaworski once commented, "Dick LeBeau is arguably the best ever to coach defense." A truer sentence has never been spoken. That factor is an important consideration when considering what these guys might accomplish in 2009.
So, will this squad prove to be the best linebacker corps in the history of the NFL? First, they need to earn the title of best linebacker corps in Steelers’ history, which is no small feat.
The Steelers’ tradition at linebacker is unmatched in the NFL. No other team comes close. They have boasted three linebacker corps that should be included in any top-ten list, the 1976 squad, the 1994 squad, and the 2008 squad.
The 70s squads featured Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, and Andy Russell playing out of a 4-3 defense. Those three accounted for 25 Pro Bowl appearances and two are in the Hall of Fame. I’m not sure Russell shouldn’t be there as well.
While the 70s Steelers’ linebacker corps were an elite squad, the fearsome foursome from the mid-'90s might have been even better. Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, and Chad Brown were all exceptional players in their own right. The fact that they played together on one team just wasn’t fair for opposing offenses.
If they had won a couple Super Bowls together, I have no doubt they would be considered the best of the best. But, they did not have anywhere close to the talent around them that the '70s corps boasted.
I think next year’s group has the potential to top all of them. Last year, Harrison and Woodley combined for 27.5 sacks. This year, they will likely top thirty, especially if the referees make offensive holding an emphasis item, as they should. By comparison, Greene and Lloyd combined for 24 sacks in 1994 when both were selected as first team all-pros.
The Harrison-Woodley duo will also be aided by a schedule that features plenty of teams who don’t pass block very well. That is not a good recipe for success when playing these Steelers.
In 2009, the Steelers play several teams that ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed in 2008 including the Detroit Lions (31th), Cincinnati Bengals (played twice) (30th), the Minnesota Vikings (26th), Oakland Raiders (24th), Kansas City Chiefs (21st), Green Bay Packers (19th), and the Baltimore Ravens (18th) twice.
They do play the two teams that tied for first last year in sacks allowed in the Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos, but the Broncos offense may be a different animal this year with a new quarterback and coaching staff. While past is not always prelude to future, clearly this schedule offers plenty of opportunities for a LeBeau linebacker corps to cause havoc and put up huge numbers.
The top player on the linebacker corps is Harrison. He is always thinking big play. He doesn't just go for the sack. Instead, he literally attacks the ball. If the quarterback somehow manages to cover the ball up, he defaults to just mauling the quarterback. And Woodley is proving to be a quick understudy. He also is perfecting the strip sack.
Think about how many games these two guys literally took over this year and how often they combined for a big play.
One of the most memorable was the sack by Harrison on Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco in Steelers-Ravens Part I, which was scooped up by Woodley and returned for a touchdown resulting in a complete momentum shift. In almost all of the Steelers' big wins, this duo played a huge part.
Last year, Lawrence Timmons added five sacks and Farrior notched 3.5 more. Timmons number will almost certainly go up this year with him on the field more often.
Farrior recorded a more than respectable 89 tackles last year, all the more remarkable because the Steelers defense had a knack for forcing three and outs, meaning they were not on the field as often as some of the lesser squads, which allows for more tackles. The 2008 Steelers ranked 6th in the league in time of possession despite having only the 22nd ranked offense. That speaks volumes to how fast the defese was getting opposing offenses off the field.
It is hard to compare linebacker corps from different eras because the game has changed so much. Linebackers in the '70s did not blitz as often in a more run dominant era.
And 4-3 and 3-4 linebackers are completely different beasts. There is also the difference in athleticism and talent between football eras that isn’t fair to consider, but it does muddy the picture.
That said, looking at the defensive statistics between the various top-rated units is enlightening. I won't look at any unit before the 1980s because the game was so different and because statistics were not kept as well.
The 1985 Bears three linebackers notched 19.5 sacks, grabbed ten interceptions, and forced two fumbles. Their defensive statistical standout that year was defensive end Richard Dent who notched 17 sacks and forced seven fumbles.
The 1986 New York Giants' linebacker corps combined for 31 sacks and three interceptions. Their leading tackler, Carl Banks, notched 113 tackles.
The NFL Network ranked the Dome Patrol of the Saints as the top linebacker corps in NFL history over the 70s Steel Curtain units who they had in the second spot. In 1991, the Saints' best defensive year, the unit recorded 29.5 sacks, four interceptions, forced 11 fumbles, and its leading tackler, Sam Mills, brought down 102 ball carriers.
The 1994 Steelers foursome notched 35.5 sacks, intercepted four passes, caused eight fumbles, and its leading tackler, Chad Brown, notched 90 sacks.
The 2000 Ravens threesome recorded ten sacks, two interceptions, seven forced fumbles and its leading tackler, Ray Lewis, made 107 tackles.
During the regular season, the 2008 Steelers collected 32.5 sacks, intercepted three passes, and caused an astounding 11 fumbles. They actually elevated their performance over the three-game playoff run, although the same can be argued for most of the other squads.
So, what do the statistics tell us? Not that much other than the fact that the 2008 Steelers compared very well statistically to the other top linebacker corps. Their numbers align most closely with the 1991 Saints and the 1994 Steelers, not surprising since those units also were designed and schemed with the linebackers as the primary playmakers.
Only the 1994 Steelers recorded more sacks and only the 1991 Saints equaled them in forced fumbles. Other than the 1985 Bears who stood alone with ten interceptions, they also held their own in the interception categort. But, stats can be deceiving and only serve as one factor to consider.
They don't always provide a good snapshot of impact plays, like strip sacks that result in touchdowns, or the Silverback's interception return in the Super Bowl, or forced holding calls that caused a drive to stall, or a key tackle at the line of scrimmage on fourth and short.
I think the least telling statistic is number of tackles. If your defense forces a lot of three and outs, it will not be on the field as often meaning that the players will not rack up as many tackles as lesser squads. There is some truth to the complaint that you can make statistics say just about anything if you try hard enough.
Nonetheless, let me throw up one more statistic. Despite having a relatively inefficient offense that made a habit out of three and outs for much of the season, the Steelers' 2008 defense finished #1 in every category but rushing defense, where they barely got edged out by the Vikings. They finished #11 in plays from scrimmage allowed, but this had a lot more to do with the offensive woes for much of the season.
In this offensive era and despite getting little help from their offense, they gave up a meager 13.9 points per game, and that was against the #1 rated schedule for overall difficulty, a schedule that featured nearly every top team in the league.
The linebacker corps was a huge part of the overall unit's success.
One more stat worth pondering is that the Steelers won the Super Bowl despite having only the 22nd ranked offense. A lot of people point to the 2000 Ravens as a team that had no offense and was carried to its title by the defense. Their offense that year was ranked 16th, six spots ahead of the 2008 Steelers' offense.
In removing nostalgia for the past from the equation, the 2009 Steelers’ linebacker corps, if it stays healthy, has a good chance of being the best ever to have played the game.
I’m not arguing that any of these linebackers are better than Lawrence Taylor, Ray Lewis, Jack Lambert, or even Kevin Greene. Lawrence Taylor has more than earned his reputation as the best linebacker to every play the game, although James Harrison's 2008 season compares favorably to LT's best seasons. He is also one of the few linebackers who can match Taylor's intensity. But, taken as an overall squad, these guys are something to behold and will likely surpass all other units.
So, what could derail the 2009 Steelers' linebacker corps? The most likely problem could be injuries. With Larry Foote leaving town, there is not that much depth behind the starters, especially at inside linebacker. Lawrence Timmons has yet to prove he can play the run as well as a "Mack" inside linebacker needs to in a 3-4 defense, although, based on his performance and apprenticeship under some excellent mentors, I don't think that will be a problem.
James Farrior, at 34 years old, is also getting up in age for a linebacker, although he likely has a couple good years left in him. He showed no signs of slowing down in 2008.
One final factor would be a dropoff in the play of the defensive line. The Steelers' outstanding defensive line, the three guys that eat up blockers so the linebackers can run free, is starting to get up in age. But, none of these guys are ready to head to the retirement home just yet. It could become a bigger factor in 2010 and beyond.
If none of these factors rear their ugly heads, this squad will likely surpass the 2008 version of the linebacker corps and set the NFL gold standard.
No doubt fans of the Saints who fondly remember the Dome Patrol, one of their few positive football memories, will disagree. No doubt fans of the Giants, Bears, and Ravens will disagree. For that matter, plenty of Steelers’ fans may disagree.
But, the offensive coordinators who have to figure out how to block these guys might have something to say about it.