40 Years of Greatness : The Steelers Linebackers

Eric D. MajeskiCorrespondent IAugust 12, 2010

40 Years of Greatness : The Steelers Linebackers

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    There aren't many teams that can say they have had as much talent at one position as the Steelers. For the past forth years, they have consistently had  outstanding linebackers. This is a look at 30 players who have made that happen. It covers almost every starter and long time contributor since 1970.

    The Steelers ran the 4-3 until 1982. That year they switched to the 3-4, and have remained that way ever since, so there will be a few different types of linebackers on this list. Luckily, even with the scheme change, the legacy continued.

    So here they are, the top 30 Steelers linebackers (ranked by me) since 1970.

Numbers 26-30

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    30. Keyaron Fox (2008-Present) - 28 G, 3 GS - Solid special teams player, was good in his three starts last season. He is here to make the list even.

    29. Chuck Allen (1970-71) - 24 G - Starting MLB to start this era, his best years were in the 60's with the Chargers, however.

    28. Lawrence Timmons (2007-Present) - 46 G, 15 GS, 12 Sacks, 101 tackles - He's just beginning and started to show glimpses of greatness last year. Hopefully, his overall game will take another big step this season.

    27. Dennis "Dirt" Winston (77-81,85-86) - 99 G, 22 GS - Part time starter and role player on the 1978 and 1979 championship teams. Winston was a good player who would have started full-time on many teams, and he did start for the Saints from 1982-85.

    26. Jerrol Williams (1989-92) - 64 G, 24 GS, 17.5 sacks, 181 tackles - Williams was very good as a situational pass rusher and special teams player. He left after starting the entire season in 1992 and being somewhat of a disappointment in that role.

Numbers 21-25

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    25. Clark Haggans (2000-07) - 107 G, 61 GS, 32.5 sacks, 206 tackles - I was never a huge fan of Haggans, but he did have his moments. Plus, he held down a starting OLB job here for four years, which is quite a resume builder in this league.

    24. Carlos Emmons (1996-99) - 51 G, 31 GS, 12 sacks, 103 tackles - Emmons had the unfortunate role of having to replace Greg Lloyd and was a bit disappointing in comparison. The truth was he was a fish out of water in a 3-4, and went on to have seven more solid seasons as a starter for the Eagles and Giants.

    23. Kendrell Bell (2001-04) - 47 G, 44 GS, 18 sacks, 193 tackles - Bell came out of the gate strong. Winning the DROTY and going to the Pro Bowl his rookie season. But, he declined form there.  He had a mediocre second season and an awful third season. After an injury and attitude issues, he was allowed to leave in free agency in 2004, and finished his career with three mediocre seasons in KC.

    22.Henry Davis (1970-73) - Davis played in every game in his four seasons as a Steeler. Defensive stats are not easy to find from that era but he did have four interceptions, and he was a primary starter for three of his seasons. Davis was a solid tackler, by all accounts, and was beneficial to Jack Ham's progress as a young player.

    21. Jerry Olsavsky (1989-97) - Olsavsky was a guy who gave it all every play in practice, and every play on the field his entire career. Definitely not blessed with the size and physical attributes of many of his counter parts, Jerry had a simple plan for success; out work every other guy on the field and quite often he did just that. He played in 119 games and started 37 during his time in Pittsburgh, he had 206 tackles and four forced fumbles. The numbers would be better had he not suffered some major injuries in the prime of his career. He has joined the Steelers coaching staff for the upcoming season.

Numbers 16-20

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    20. Earl Holmes (1996-01) - When Bill Cowher called Holmes to tell him they would be drafting him, he congratulated Cowher on picking the best linebacker in the country. Holmes had a fiery intensity early in his career that had been rare out of their inside linebackers. Unfortunately for Holmes, his early fire seemed to fizzle just a bit as his career progressed, leaving him ultimately a victim of the numbers game after the 2001 season. But, during his time here, Holmes started 79 games, made 392 tackles and had 9.5 sacks.

    19. Loren Toews (1973-83) - Not many people think of Toews when they think of the Steel Curtain defense. Toews played an important role as the first reserve and was a starter for most of the 1977 and 1978 seasons. Big, fast, and solid Toews played in 149 games and started 59 of them in his years in Pittsburgh. He is also the recipient of four Super Bowl rings.

    18. Larry Foote (2002-08, Present) - The return of Foote is very comforting. He is a solid all-around linebacker who plays both the pass and the run relatively well. Foote was a starter for the 2005 and 2008 championship teams. He has amassed 283 tackles, seven forced fumbles and 14.5 sacks in 83 starts out of 110 games played in Pittsburgh.

    17. Bryan Hinkle (1982-93) - Hinkle had the misfortune of being one of the better players on some of the worst Steeler teams out of the last forty years. Hinkle was decent against the run and, to this day, one of the better coverage linebackers ever to wear the Black and Gold. He played in 163 games, started 116 games, and had 22.5 sacks, 15 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries.

    16. Robin Cole (1977-87) - Cole was a major contributor on the last two Super Bowl teams of the 1970's, and was one of the leaders on the D for much of the 1980's. He was unusual in that he was equally successful on the inside and outside of that linebacking core, and split his career playing both. He played in 150 games, starting 126 of them had,16.5 sacks, 15 fumble recoveries and five intercpetions during his time in Pittsburgh.

15. Hardy Nickerson (1987-92)

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    Nickerson will be remembered more for his time as a Buccaneer, but it was Pittsburgh who gave him his start. Drafted in the fifth round in 1987, he was part of one of the greatest drafts ever by a team (a draft that included Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Merril Hoge and Tim Johnson).

    During his time in Pittsburgh Nickerson played in 84 games, starting 61 and had 9.5 sacks, 426 tackles and five forced fumbles. In 1992 he left in free agency and signed one of the biggest contracts ever for a linebacker at the time.

    He is a fringe candidate to make the Hall of Fame some day.

14. LaMarr Woodley (2007-Present)

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    It doesn't always work out when the Steelers try to convert college defensive ends into NFL OLB's, but when it does it is a beautiful thing. Only entering his third season as a starter, LaMarr is already one of the most feared pass rushers in the league, and his all-around skills as a linebacker have been improving every time he touches the field.

    Woodley has played in 44 games with 31 starts and has 29 sacks, 106 tackles and five fumble recoveries. He was a Pro Bowler in 2009, and if the Steelers can sign him long term, soon he is a likely candidate to climb high on this list.

13. David Little (1981-92)

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    Little was a tackling machine, finally getting credit for it with a Pro Bowl nod following the 1990 season. He was a steady a player and was a big reason the Steelers run D never suffered, even though most other aspects did at one point or another during the 1980's.

    During his time here, Little played in 179 games and started 125 of them, compiling 10 interceptions and a bunch of tackles which, unfortunately, were not officially tallied in those days. From 1983 through 1990, he played in every non strike game.

12. Mike Merriweather (1982-87)

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    Mike Merriweather was a special player with all the skills to be a great linebacker in this league. He was drafted in the third round of the 1982 draft and became a full time starter in his second season. In 1984, he burst on to the national seen with a 15-sack performance, and went to his first of three consecutive Pro Bowls. Unfortunately, the Steelers were not able to reach his contract demands, and allowed him to sit out the entire 1988 season, before joining the Vikings in 1989.

    His stats as a Steeler include 76 games started, 31 sacks and 11 interceptions.

11. Chad Brown (1993-96, 2006)

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    Brown was selected in the second round of the 1993 draft.  He became a starter mid way through his rookie season when Jerry Olsavsky went down with an injury. Brown spent his first three seasons starting at ILB, and was very solid. In 1996 he took over at OLB for an injured Greg Lloyd, and became one of the top young stars in the league.  He was voted to the Pro Bowl and was a first team All-Pro. Unfortunately, that was a contract year and he priced himself right out of the Steelers' range. He did. however. rejoin the Steelers ten years later when he was signed mid season to help an injured LB core.

     

    His numbers in Pittsburgh include 31 sacks, and 232 tackles, while starting 49 games.

10. Kevin Greene (1993-96)

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    There may not be another player who left a bigger impression on a franchise in just three years, than Greene did in Pittsburgh.

    In his three years here, Greene compiled 35.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and 154 tackles, while starting all 48 games over that span. He was a two-time Pro Bowler, a first team All-Pro, the NFL sack leader, and helped the Steelers reach Super Bowl 30, during his stay in Pittsburgh.

9. James Harrison (2002, 2004-Present)

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    Silverback's career highlights would include a DPOTY award, and one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history.

    An undrafted free agent who didn't even make the team his second season, luckily came back to the Steelers in 2004, and has never looked back. He spent his first three years back as a part time starter and major contributor on the special teams.  In the three years since, he has become one of the top linebackers in all of football.

    His stats include 38.5 sacks, 282 tackles, 19 forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries. He has been to three consecutive Pro Bowls.

8. James Farrior (2002-Present)

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    James Farrior is arguably the best veteran free agent signing in Steelers history. Viewed as somewhat of a bust by the NY Jets, the Steelers signed Farrior in 2002, and he has started all but four games since.  He was the leader of two championship defenses.

    His stats in Pittsburgh include 124 starts, 605 tackles, 22 sacks, 11 forced fumbles and eight interceptions. He has been to two Pro Bowls and was a first team All-Pro in 2004.

7. Jason Gildon (1994-03)

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    Jason Gildon was a third round selection in 1994. He got to sit behind Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene his first two seasons, and he obviously took advantage of the experience.

    Gildon is the Steelers All-Time sack leader with 77 (the stat wasn't kept until 1982) and was a three-time Pro Bowler. He also amassed 372 tackles and 15 forced fumbles during his years in Pittsburgh.

6. Joey Porter (1999-06)

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    Intense. That's the first word that comes to mind when I think of Joey Porter. His intensity has occasionally led to issues, but for the most part, Porter has been an outstanding football player who can take over a game at any time.

    During his time in Pittsburgh, Porter compiled 60 sacks, 327 tackles, 10 interceptions and 17 forced fumbles. He went to three Pro Bowls, and was a leader on the Super Bowl XL Championship team.

5. Levon Kirkland (1992-00)

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    An inside linebacker with the size of a defensive lineman is a rare thing.  As a matter of fact, it would be hard to find a better linebacker in his weight class than Levon Kirkland.

    During his time here, Kirkland was a dynamic run stuffer who was more than capable in the coverage game, as well. He compiled 639 tackles, 11 interceptions, 18.5 sacks, and 14 forced fumbles. He was a two-time Pro Bowler, and was a first team All-Pro in 1997.

4. Greg Lloyd (1987-97)

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    Lloyd struck fear into offensive players, like very few men in football ever have. He was an all around talent as a pass rusher, run stopper, and in pass coverage. For about four years, he was at the top of all linebacker football talk.

    During his time in Pittsburgh, Lloyd compiled 659 tackles, and 53.5 sacks to go with 10 interceptions, and 34 forced fumbles. He was a five-time Pro Bowler, and a three-time first team All-Pro.

3. Andy Russell (1963-76)

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    Russell is, by far the least appreciated, of the great Steelers linebackers. I can say without question there are twenty or more franchises where he would be the best linebacker they ever had. Maybe his lack of respect comes form his 16th round selection in the draft.  More than likely, it is because of all those great Steeler defenders of the 1970's. I can say this though, when all those guys got here, they arrived to find a defense led by Andy Russell.

    During the 1970's Russell went to six Pro Bowls.

2. Jack Lambert (1974-84)

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    Lambert is one of the most feared players in the league's history. He prowled the middle of the Steelers defense for 11 unforgettable seasons.

    The man who was originally a college QB, became one of the hardest hitting, and most aggressive defenders the NFL has ever seen. During his career, Lambert compiled 28 interceptions, and 17 fumble recoveries. He went to nine Pro Bowls, was voted first team All-Pro six times, was the 1974 DROTY and the 1976 DROTY.

1. Jack Ham (1971-82)

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    Ham has been called the most technically sound linebacker to ever play the game. There was no weakness in his game, he rarely missed time to injuries, rarely had a penalty called on him, and was never out of place. Some of the more fiery players from the era may be remembered a little better, but Ham was by all accounts what every coach in the league wanted.

    Ham went to eight consecutive Pro Bowls, was a six-time first team All-Pro, and had a Steeler linebacker record 32 interceptions.