Ever since “Mean” Joe Greene was drafted in 1969, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been regarded as a defensively stout team. One needs look no further than their six Super Bowl champion teams for evidence of that.
None of those teams finished worse than fifth in points allowed. The same applies for yards allowed.
The difficulty lies in trying to establish a pecking order amongst those squads. In three of those six seasons the Steelers fielded the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
And any discrepancy in points and yards allowed by each of these teams is generally very thin.
While it’s no easy task to identify which of these stellar Steelers defenses was the best and which was the worst, there’s no harm in trying.
So where does your favorite edition of the “Steel Curtain” rank?
Read on to find out.
Ranking Criteria: Each team was awarded a rank between one to six (the lower the better) in the following categories: points allowed, yards allowed, turnovers forced and All-Pro selections. I also shaved a point from each team’s worst category for the three squads with a Defensive Player of the Year on the roster.
Now, on a list ranking championships teams, there’s obviously little shame in being slotted last. But, as they finished last or just above it in each of the categories I considered, the ’05 Steelers defense ranks as the worst to win a championship.
The team yielded 258 points to opponents for an average of 16.1 points per game. Of course, that’s still an impressive number, but in a list loaded with stingy defenses it’s only good for second-to-last.
The ’05 edition of the Steelers was the only championship squad to allow more than 3,000 passing yards in a season. They also allowed nearly 20 more offensive yards per game than the next-closest team.
This team forced 30 turnovers in the regular season. That number’s impressive at the surface, but three of the four championship teams in the ‘70s had at least 42 takeaways. And one such campaign was in a 14-game season.
With three sacks, two interceptions and one defensive touchdown, Troy Polamalu garnered this defense’s lone All-Pro bid.
On the strength of the “Steel Curtain,” the Steelers' 1970s dynasty became synonymous with defense. But by the end of the decade they had to rely on offense more than ever.
This defense allowed 16.4 PPG, the worst mark of any Steelers team to win a Super Bowl.
They do still rank ahead of the ’05 defense, however, largely because they were better at taking the ball away. This team pilfered the ball 42 times in the regular season, a dozen more than the team they’re ahead of.
That trend continued into the playoffs as the team forced another eight turnovers in three postseason contests—good for twice as many as the ’05 team that forced four in as many games.
Also playing in this squad’s favor is the fact that they boast four All-Pro’s, the most of any team on this list. That list includes “Mean” Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Donnie Shell.
It’s a testament to just how good the “Steel Curtain” defenses were that this great defense falls into the bottom half of this list.
This defense allowed just 13.9 PPG, an astoundingly low figure in today’s offense-oriented NFL. That mark jumped to 20 PPG in the playoffs, but the defense made up for it with two iconic pick-sixes from Troy Polamalu and James Harrison.
Speaking of turnovers, they’re partially to blame for this defense’s fourth-place ranking. The team forced 29 turnovers, the lowest total for any team on this list. They did, however, up the ante in the playoffs with eight takeaways in three games.
But back to Polamalu and Harrison, they both earned All-Pro honors at the season’s conclusion. And deservedly so. Polamalu set a career best with seven interceptions, and Harrison tallied 16 sacks en route to the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award.
As far as points per game goes, this defense was among the best in Steelers history. They allowed just 12.2 PPG and held 10 of their opponents to 10 points or less.
That number jumped some in the postseason, but a 31-point outing from the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl skews that. The Steelers took a 35-17 lead in the fourth quarter of that game before the Cowboys mounted a furious rally.
The ferocity of this defense is evidenced by their takeaway totals. The team forced 48 turnovers in the regular season, an average of three per game.
That figure jumped in the playoffs, when the Steelers forced 14 more turnovers in just three games. That amounts to the mind-boggling average of nearly five per game.
So who led that team in interceptions? Mel Blount? Donnie Shell? Nope. Second-year defensive back Tony Dungy led the charge by pulling down six picks.
This team announced its dominance right from the start by pitching a shutout on opening day. Scoring on them wouldn’t get much easier from there.
The ’75 Steelers allowed just 11.6 PPG, the fewest on this list. For the most part, that average stood in the playoffs as they allowed just 12.3 PPG in three contests.
The team forced 37 turnovers; the lowest total for any of the four ‘70s Super Bowl teams. But, in this instance, that only serves to make their dominance more impressive.
They turned the heat up in the playoffs by amassing 11 takeaways in just three games. Coincidentally, 11 is also the number of interceptions Mel Blount pulled down that season—one he finished as the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
The accolades didn’t end with Blount as Jack Ham and L.C. Greenwood joined him in being selected to the All-Pro team.
In the regular season, this defense allowed 13.5 PPG, good for just third-best on this list. So, why then do they take the top slot?
Simple. They were at their best when the competition was as well.
In three postseason games, the ’74 Steelers allowed just 11 PPG. They capped it off by allowing a mere six points to the Vikings in the Super Bowl.
In that game, the Steelers took the ball away five times, continuing a trend that had lasted all season. The Steelers forced 47 turnovers in ’74, good for second on this list.
They also finish first among the Steelers' Super Bowl-winning defenses in yards allowed per game at just 219.5.
Their dominance started up front with "Mean" Joe Greene, who won his second AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in the same season as his first Lombardi Trophy.