Ranking the Pittsburgh Steelers' Top 25 Players of All Time
For a franchise as storied as the Pittsburgh Steelers, there’s been no shortage of great players.
Identifying 25 great Steelers isn’t a difficult task. Hell, you could pick nearly that many from the 1970s alone.
The difficulty lies in ranking so many great players.
Should Jerome Bettis be above Franco Harris? Hines Ward over John Stallworth? Ben Roethlisberger over Terry Bradshaw?
While there’s no exact science to compiling such a list, I’ve done my best to rank these Steelers greats and several others.
Read on to see where your favorite Steelers rank and whether or not you agree.
25. Joey Porter
I wrestled with whom to put in the No. 25 spot for some time before settling on Joey Porter. Sure, James Farrior and Aaron Smith were great leaders in their own right, but neither brought the same kind of leadership as Peezy.
Like Jack Lambert and Greg Lloyd who preceded him, Porter was usually the nastiest and most intense player on the field. And he had a knack for drawing the ire of opponents.
In six of his seven seasons as a starter in Pittsburgh, Porter collected at least seven sacks. He also contributed a sack in each of the Steelers’ three games on the road to Super Bowl XL.
24. Carnell Lake
Because Carnell Lake spent much of his career in the same secondary as Rod Woodson, he’s not often thought of among the Steelers' all-time greats. He should be, however.
Lake is what Bob Sanders could’ve been had he stayed healthy.
Lake’s 25 career sacks are among the best for a defensive back in NFL history. In 1997, Lake notched six quarterback takedowns and three interceptions en route to winning the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
Now serving as the team’s defensive backs coach, Lake has helped guide the Steelers to two top-ranked pass defenses in the past three seasons.
23. Donnie Shell
The Steelers' 1974 draft class is often lauded as the best ever. With Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster all joining the team by way of that draft, it’s tough to argue.
Their biggest steal that year, though, may’ve been the undrafted Donnie Shell. Like Lake, Shell was overshadowed by playing alongside a great in Mel Blount. But that didn’t stop him from making quite an impact.
Shell totaled 51 career interceptions, including a remarkable run of at least three in 10 straight seasons.
22. Jack Butler
Despite playing the duration of his career in what were the Steelers’ dark ages (read: before 1969), Butler managed to earn a bust in the Hall of Fame in 2012. More than five decades after his playing days ended.
Before the likes of Ty Law and Champ Bailey were even thought of, Butler was a bona fide ball hawk. He recorded at least nine interceptions in three seasons, and his 52 career picks was the second-most ever at the time of his retirement.
Butler passed away at the age of 85 in 2013, but thankfully, he got his long-awaited Hall of Fame induction the year prior.
21. Andy Russell
Andy Russell was one of the few Steelers from the pre-Chuck Noll era to hang around for the team’s first Super Bowl victory. He and a pair of Jacks in Ham and Lambert became the gold standard for linebacker play in the NFL.
A seven-time Pro Bowler, Russell’s legacy hasn’t stood the test of time like Ham and Lambert. Nonetheless, I’m sure he takes solace in the fact that he was able to earn two Super Bowl victories after enduring quite a bit of losing earlier in his career.
20. Alan Faneca
Alan Faneca is one of a few players on this list whose Steelers career ended in less-than-ideal fashion over monetary issues. Nonetheless, that hardly serves to detract from what was one of the best careers in team history.
A nine-time All-Pro, Faneca paved the way for the likes of Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker and even Duce Staley to have success in black and yellow. In fact, it was Faneca who laid a key block to spring Parker’s record-breaking 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL.
19. L.C. Greenwood
While the Steel Curtain has become synonymous with the likes of “Mean” Joe Greene and Jack Lambert, L.C. Greenwood was another key cog on those dominant defenses.
Sacks weren’t a recorded stat in Greenwood’s playing days, but he’s been credited with 73.5 of them. That total’s just five less than the indomitable Greene was credited with for his career.
More importantly, Greenwood saved his best performances for the biggest moments. Unofficially, he recorded five sacks in his team’s four Super Bowl wins.
18. Ernie Stautner
Several former Steelers’ jerseys are considered off-limits, but only Ernie Stautner has seen his number officially retired.
Even in the 1950s, Stautner was undersized for a defensive lineman. Coupled with that, he was playing on a historically miserable Steelers squad.
In spite of a decided lack of motivational factors, Stautner’s motivation was seemingly never lacking. According to his Hall of Fame biography, Stautner was “known for excellent mobility, burning desire, extreme ruggedness and unusual durability.”
With those traits, Stautner carved out an excellent career for himself. The 10-time All-Pro suffered a litany of injuries in his career and yet missed only six games in 14 years.
17. Greg Lloyd
Before Joey Porter and James Harrison, it was Greg Lloyd mean-mugging his way into the hearts of Steelers Nation. Like those men, Lloyd was known for providing big hits and shocking quotes in equal measure.
Between the 1991 and '95 seasons, Lloyd tallied 37 sacks and garnered five Pro Bowl bids. A 10-sack season in 1994 earned him the honor of the UPI’s AFC Defensive Player of the Year award.
Lloyd, the unquestioned leader of the great “Blitzburgh” defenses in the 1990s, was known for wearing a shirt that read, “I wasn’t hired for my disposition.”
Truer words were never written.
16. Dermontti Dawson
After playing alongside stalwart center Mike Webster in his rookie season, the Steelers had enough confidence in Dermontti Dawson to slot him in Webster’s spot in his second season.
Dawson rewarded that trust with more than a decade of excellent play.
Through most of his playing days, Dawson was considered the unquestioned best center in the league. He earned six consecutive All-Pro selections as well as a spot on the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team.
Finally, in 2012, Dawson earned the greatest individual accolade the NFL has to offer: a spot in the Hall of Fame.
15. James Harrison
Perhaps no permanently scowling face is more beloved in Pittsburgh than that of James Harrison.
I remember attending the Steelers/Ravens game in the 2010 AFC Divisional Round and being awestruck when Harrison exited the tunnel. The look on his face just told me Joe Flacco was in for a long day.
Of course, Harrison notched three sacks in that contest.
The undrafted product out of Kent State entered the NFL with low expectations and matched them by toiling on practice squads and in the NFL Europe through the early portion of his career.
Eventually, Silverback earned a spot in the starting lineup and made 31 teams regret overlooking him. Harrison tallied 60 sacks in six years as a starter and took home Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008.
What he’ll most be remembered for, though, is an astounding pick-six against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
14. Lynn Swann
Here’s one for you. Nate Washington (remember him?) already has more receptions and receiving yards than Lynn Swann had in his career.
So, why then, is Swann considered among the best Steelers in franchise history? Simple, nobody did it better in big moments.
Swann was statistically blanked in Super bowl IX, the culmination of his rookie year. However, he more than made up for it in each of his return trips.
In Super Bowl X, Swann recorded just four receptions but made every one count. He finished the game with 161 yards, a touchdown and Super Bowl MVP honors.
Swann added another 203 yards and two more scores in his team’s next two trips to the big game.
13. John Stallworth
If watching a video chronicling Pittsburgh's heyday, you’re more likely to see a spectacular catch from Swann than Stallworth. However, it’s the latter that proved to be the better of the two.
Injuries forced Stallworth to miss nearly three season’s worth of games, but his impact was evident when healthy.
Stallworth topped Swann’s career best for receiving yards four times and held every major Steelers receiving record when he called it a career.
And like his counterpart, Stallworth had a few signature moments of his own. Namely, he caught 70-plus-yard touchdowns in Super Bowls XII and XIII.
12. Mike Webster
Mike Webster, appropriately nicknamed “Iron Mike,” was the personification of toughness.
By simply looking at a scouting report, many deemed Webster undersized. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find many players stronger than Webster.
A well-known gym rat, Webster’s arms looked carved out of stone. And he had no issues mixing it up with bigger opponents.
Webster’s stellar play didn’t go unnoticed. He earned nine All-Pro selections and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame after retirement.
Unfortunately, it appears butting heads (literally) with tough guys like him for nearly two decades took its toll on Webster. He was in mental disarray after retiring and died tragically of a heart attack at just 50 years old.
11. Troy Polamalu
Troy Polamalu’s penchant for the spectacular has been unrivaled since being drafted by the Steelers in 2003.
Whether he’s diving over the line of scrimmage, coming up with a crucial strip-sack or pulling down one improbable interception after another, fans can count on getting their money’s worth when Polamalu’s playing.
Steelers’ lore is littered with numerous great defenders, so it’s no small feat for Polamalu to end up in the top half of this list. However, it’s hardly contestable that he deserves it.
Polamalu’s two best individual campaigns ended with the Steelers in the Super Bowl. And without him, that might not have been the case.
Pittsburgh fans will fondly recall Polamalu’s pick-six in the 2008 AFC Championship Game to halt the Ravens' comeback bid. That season ended with the team winning a record-breaking sixth Super Bowl championship.
10. Hines Ward
Throughout his career, Hines Ward was an exemplary wide receiver.
Wards ranks in the top 20 in NFL history in both receptions and receiving touchdowns. With 12,083 receiving yards, he ranks just outside the 20-mark.
But it isn’t solely Ward’s receiving abilities that earned him a spot in this list’s top 10. In fact, it’s another aspect of his game that many fans will remember fondly.
Ward played fearlessly. Never the biggest on the field, he had no problem laying a vicious block on any opponent. And he did it with a smile.
9. Jack Ham
Unlike many other players on this list, especially those at his position, Jack Ham wasn’t known for his aggressive demeanor.
Nonetheless, Ham was cerebral. Seemingly never out of position, the Penn State product was able to diagnose plays and close on the ball in a hurry.
This skill set led Ham to force 53 career turnovers, a record for NFL linebackers which still stands today. He was also unofficially credited with 25 sacks for his career, making him a member of the prestigious 20-sack/20-interception club.
8. Jerome Bettis
Several players on this list finished their careers in different uniforms, but Bettis is the only one to start his in one.
The Steelers sent second- and fourth-round draft picks to the St. Louis Rams in 1996 in order to obtain Bettis, and the move proved fruitful to say the least.
Listed at 250 pounds (in some years that seemed generous), the aptly nicknamed “Bus” steamrolled defenders on his way to sixth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list.
Bettis’ first six seasons in Pittsburgh saw him top 1,000 rushing yards, but it may be his last season that proves most memorable.
Bettis considered retirement before the 2005 season but decided to stick around for one more shot at an elusive Super Bowl ring.
Of course, Steelers fans all know how this story ends. “The Bus” rode into his hometown of Detroit for Super Bowl XL and was able to close his career in a fashion befitting such a valued contributor.
7. Rod Woodson
In the annals of NFL history, you’d be hard-pressed to find many better at their craft than Rod Woodson.
Woodson ranks third all-time with 71 career interceptions. Perhaps more impressively, he was able to parlay his many takeaways into 13 defensive touchdowns. That mark is tied with Charles Woodson and Darren Sharper for the most in league history.
Woodson’s signature moment as a Steeler came in Super Bowl XXX. He tore his ACL in the season’s opening game and miraculously returned in time for the big game just 19 weeks later.
6. Mel Blount
One easy way to judge a football player is to take a look at the impact he had on the game.
When the NFL is forced to alter its rules because of one player’s dominance, that player’s legacy is probably safe.
Midway through Mel Blount’s career, the NFL introduced the “Mel Blount rule,” which outlawed the jamming of a receiver more than five yards past the line of scrimmage.
The rule forever changed the way the game is played, but it did little to halt Blount’s dominance. Blount tallied 22 of his 57 career interceptions and two of his four Super Bowl victories after the rule’s introduction.
5. Ben Roethlisberger
Some may contend that this spot’s a little high for Ben Roethlisberger, but they need only look at the years between his arrival and Terry Bradshaw’s departure.
The Steelers fielded several competitive squads and All-Pro-caliber players, but quarterback play always seemed to be their downfall.
Yes, he inherited a talented squad. But he also led it to heights not seen in decades.
With three Super Bowl appearances and two victories, Roethlisberger has already given younger Steelers fans a golden age of their own. His 32 career game-winning drives are good enough for 11th in NFL history.
And of course, one of those 32 drives stands well above the rest. Roethlisberger’s game-winning drive against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII firmly cemented his status as one of the all-time Steelers greats.
4. Franco Harris
Franco Harris will forever be known for his role in what may be the greatest play in NFL history: “The Immaculate Reception.”
By improbably corralling a deflected pass and taking it the distance, Harris helped the Steelers to their first playoff win and put an end to 40 years of futility.
However, Harris meant much more to the Steelers than simply one great play.
Harris ran for more than 12,000 yards in his career and topped the 1,000-yard plateau eight times, an NFL record at the time of his retirement.
And I’d be remiss not to mention how Harris excelled on the game’s biggest stage. His 354 Super Bowl rushing yards has stood as a record since he last played in one more than three decades ago.
3. Terry Bradshaw
As far as quarterbacks who’ve won multiple Super Bowls go, Terry Bradshaw isn’t necessarily considered the cream of the crop.
He tossed at least 20 interceptions in five seasons, and his quarterback rating just barely exceeds 70. In fact, if not for two touchdown tosses in his last season, his touchdown-to-interception ratio would be dead even.
But Bradshaw’s legacy transcends statistics.
No matter what missteps Bradshaw had in the game’s first three quarters, the fourth usually belonged to him.
Bradshaw’s nine Super Bowl touchdown passes is an NFL record, and four of them came in the game’s final stanza.
In fact, of the 103 points the Steelers scored in Bradshaw’s four Super Bowls, nearly half (49) of them came in the final quarter.
2. Jack Lambert
Nobody’s ever personified what the Pittsburgh Steelers are all about better than Jack Lambert.
Tall, mean and missing his front teeth, Lambert wasn’t easily intimidated. And he refused to let anyone intimidate his teammates.
In Super Bowl X, Lambert famously tossed Cowboys safety Cliff Harris to the ground after he taunted kicker Roy Gerela. The Steelers would go on to score 14 unanswered points and win their second consecutive championship.
Of course, after a few incidents like this, Lambert was widely considered one of the most terrifying players in the league. And it didn’t take long for John Elway to figure that out.
Lambert and the Steelers knocked the then-rookie out of his first professional game and caused Elway to consider alternate career paths:
"He had no teeth, and he was slobbering all over himself. I'm thinking, 'you can have your money back, just get me out of here. Let me go be an accountant.' I can't tell you how badly I wanted out of there."
1. "Mean" Joe Greene
Along with Chuck Noll, nobody was more important to the Steelers’ epic turnaround than “Mean” Joe Greene.
Greene was initially displeased to be joining a subpar squad, and he took out much of his frustration on his opponents. One such incident included an altercation with Dick Butkus, the famed and frightening Bears linebacker.
In short, Ndamukong Suh is what Joe Greene would be on Ritalin.
On the field, Greene was a force to be reckoned with. Though he faced constant double- and even triple-teams, he managed to tally 78.5 career sacks.
The 10-time Pro Bowler was also one of the elite few to take home the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award twice. The other players to do so were Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, Reggie White and Ray Lewis.
Greene wasn’t the only great player from the Steelers' 1970s dynasty, but he was the one to get it off the ground.
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