Pittsburgh Steelers History: Top 10 Defensive Backs of All-Time
Every team has a forte, something that defines them, and no team has ever been defined more by their defense than the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While the Steelers have been known for the Steel Curtain's Hall of Fame linebackers and defensive linemen, there have been some outstanding defensive backs roaming the secondary behind the likes of Jack Lambert and "Mean Joe Greene".
Let's see how the top 10 defensive backs in Steelers’ history play out…
10. Darren Perry—1992-1998
Bill Cowher drafted Perry in his very first draft as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Penn State product would go on to be the first rookie to lead the team in interceptions since 1955, as he would combine with Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake to form one of the most feared defensive secondaries in the NFL for much of the 1990’s.
Perry finished his career ranked seventh on the Steelers’ all-time career interceptions list with 32.
Having done so in seven seasons makes that number all the more impressive, as he averaged five picks a season during his time wearing the black and gold.
9. Glen Edwards—1971-1977
The two-time Pro Bowler played seven seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers before being traded to the San Diego Chargers for a sixth round pick prior to the 1978 season.
25 of his 39 career interceptions came while wearing black and gold. That’s a mark good enough to be 11th all-time in Steelers history.
Edwards won two Super Bowl rings with the Steelers in Super Bowls IX and X, making big plays in both victories.
The first came by way of a sledgehammer hit on Vikings receiver John Gilliam.
Gilliam had just caught the ball near the goal line when Edwards made the hit that jarred the ball from Gilliam’s grasp and into the waiting arms of Hall of Famer Mel Blount. His hit stopped a certain touchdown.
The second play was an interception. Edwards sealed a victory for the Steelers in Super Bowl X by intercepting the Cowboys’ Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach in the end zone as time expired.
Edwards would go on to have 14 more interceptions with San Diego over the final four years of his career, but not before making his mark on Steelers’ history.
8. Mike Wagner—1971-1980
Mike Wagner won four Super Bowl rings playing safety for the vaunted Steel Curtain defense of the 70’s.
Wagner had a nose for the football and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time leading the league in interceptions once and making two Pro Bowls on his way to 36 career interceptions and becoming the sixth leading pick artist in Steelers history.
The two biggest interceptions of Wagner’s career may have come during the most important times as well, recording interceptions in Super Bowls IX and X.
7. Dwayne Woodruff—1979-1990
The court is now in session. The Honorable Judge Dwayne Woodruff is now presiding.
The fifth leading interception man in Steelers history is now a Judge in the Court of Common Pleas in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
Woodruff obtained his law degree from Duquesne University and became the founding member of the law firm Woodruff, Flaherty, and Fardo after retiring from the NFL following the 1990 season.
But before Woodruff started trying cases in the courtroom, he was ruling over the Steelers defensive secondary for the better part of 11 NFL seasons.
His 37 career interceptions, 35 in nine years as a starter, were secondary only to his knack for finding ways to score off of turnovers.
Woodruff mentored and played opposite a young and very talented Rod Woodson from 1986 to 1990, as his career came to a close with the Steelers.
6. Troy Polamalu—2003-Present
It hardly seems possible that it has been seven years since Troy Polamalu was taken in the first round of the 2003 draft by the Steelers.
Whether it seems like ages ago or yesterday, Polamalu has made an impact on the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise and the NFL in ways that few players have ever done before him.
After a slow start in his rookie season, Polamalu has managed to amass 453 tackles, seven sacks, and 20 interceptions in a little over six full seasons.
Those 20 interceptions rank 14th in Steelers’ history and he is certainly far from being done climbing that ladder as he continues to be one of the most feared defenders in the NFL.
Perhaps New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said it best when asked about him, “If you don’t know where Troy Polamalu is he’ll kill you”.
5. Carnell Lake—1989-1998
Carnell Lake may have been the most versatile defensive back in Steelers history, and certainly was one of the smartest football players the Steelers ever had the privilege to employ.
While Lake’s 16 career interceptions only ranks 21st on the all-time list, his presence on the field proved more valuable than the numbers could ever show.
Lake was named to the Pro Bowl five times in his NFL career, an impressive feat for any player.
When you consider the fact that Lake started out as a linebacker in the collegiate ranks, and made the switch to safety, that number becomes even more impressive.
When you factor in the fact that Lake twice had to make the even more difficult move to corner because of injury issues on the team, and made two of his five Pro Bowls as a corner, that number becomes down right incredible.
Lake wasn’t your run of the mill defensive back either. Whether he was playing safety or corner during his 10 seasons in Pittsburgh, his 753 tackles and 15 forced fumbles prove Lake was never afraid to stick his nose in the play in order to make a tackle against the run.
4. Donnie Shell—1974-1987
A man who was be the beginning of a long line of modern undrafted free agents to become All-Pro defenders for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Donnie “Torpedo” Shell is one of the best strong safeties to ever play the game of football.
Shell finished his career with 51 interceptions, which is third on the Steelers’ all-time list, and still stands as the record for most by any strong safety in NFL history.
The five time Pro Bowler spent 14 seasons in a Steelers uniform, and had at least one interception in each of those seasons.
His hard hitting, “torpedo” style of play was what many present Steeler fans are familiar with from watching current Steelers’ safety Troy Polamalu. Shell always had a nose for the ball, and in turn was notorious for launching himself into the play and blowing it up with a big hit or a signature pick.
3. Jack Butler—1951-1959
Having never played high-school football, Jack Butler tried out for the St. Bonaventure football team on a whim, as he was studying to become a priest. One of the priests at St. Bonnies, Father Dan Rooney, made a call to his brother who happened to be the owner/founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers–Art Rooney Sr.
Father Rooney suggested that “the chief” consider bringing Butler on as a player for the Steelers, and the rest is history.
The former apprentice to the cloth became known as the man with the “face of a choirboy and the heart of an arsonist” according to Pittsburgh Press sports editor Pat Livingston.
Butler would end up with 52 interceptions in his nine seasons with the Steelers, second only to Mel Blount in Steelers’ history, and third only to hall of famers Emlen Tunnell and Dick “The Night Train” Lane at the time of his retirement.
That retirement came too soon, as Butler retired at the height of his career making four consecutive Pro Bowls, and averaging almost seven interceptions a season over that span.
His philosophy “The best pass defense is the respect of the receivers. If they know they are going to get hit as soon as they touch the ball, they’re not so relaxed catching it” lives on to this day in the fundamental core of how the Steelers play defense.
2. Mel Blount—1970-1983
A philanthropist, a gentleman, and one heck of a football player, Mel Blount is the symbol of all Steelers defensive backs.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989, Blount’s 57 career interceptions are the most by anyone wearing black and gold all-time.
Blount was selected to five Pro Bowls and named the 1975 defensive player of the year after recording 11 interceptions that season.
Blount’s size, speed, and strength were legendary for his time in the NFL. So much so that the NFL had to change the rules concerning pass defense after the 1977 season because of his physical prowess.
Blount was known for setting the mark high.
The story goes that Blount happened to pass some scouts testing a top prospect’s vertical jump one day at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Seeing a black mark on the wall he asked what it was. The scouts told Blount that the mark was the height of the vertical jump that the prospect had just performed.
Without another word, Blount, who was dressed in street clothes, proceeded to jump and touch a height much higher on the wall. He then looked at the prospect and said with glaring certainty, “That’s the Steelers’ mark.”
The year was 1982, Blount was 31 years old, and the prospect was Renaldo Jeremiah, an Olympic athlete and the world-record holder in the 110-meter hurdles.
1. Rod Woodson—1987-1996
Pick an area of the game and you could most likely agree that if he wanted to, Rod Woodson could have done it better.
The 2009 Hall of Fame inductee was selected to 11 Pro Bowl teams (6 with the Steelers), and finished his 17-year career with 71 interceptions (38 in 10 seasons in Pittsburgh).
His interception totals with the Steelers lands him fourth on the Steelers’ all-time interceptions list behind only the likes of Mel Blount, Jack Butler, and Donnie Shell.
Woodson’s all around contributions to the team also allowed him to finish his time in Pittsburgh as the all-time leader in punt and kickoff returns.
Perhaps somewhat overlooked was Woodson’s propensity for creating the turnover or making the big play at the biggest of moments due to his fundamental prowess as a technician of the game.
Whether it was blocking a field goal, running back a kick, making an interception, or forcing one of his career 20 forced fumbles, the 1993 defensive player of the year was the best the storied Steelers defense ever had to offer.