Steelers Ranked Top Linebacker Academy – By Viktor Figeczki
Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial
|As a rule, the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t buy great players – they produce them.
Three of their centers rank among the all-time elite. Mike Webster in the 70s, Dermontti Dawson in the 90s and presently converted guard Jeff Hartings all earned elite status among players of their position.
Running back is a similar story. Look no further than Franco Harris, Barry Foster and Jerome Bettis and you’ll find some of the better running backs of their era.
The Pittsburgh offense, considering that it has traditionally favored the run, has even yielded a surprising group of prolific wide receivers. There are Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and Pro Bowlers Yancey Thigpen and Hines Ward, just to name a few.
None of those, however, can be named as the Steelers’ best unit of players. The position that has historically been the backbone of the black-and-gold, however, is their alpha male linebackers.
In virtually every decade since Chuck Noll brought a winning attitude to Pittsburgh, the Steelers have been personified by this group.
In the 70s and early 80s, even though quarterback Terry Bradshaw was a first overall draft-pick and other celebrated Steelers had colorful monikers like “Mean” Joe Greene, it was middle linebacker Jack Lambert (Hall of Fame, 8 Pro Bowls) who was synonymous with Steeler football. Lambert was the quintessential predator – eminently tough yet cerebral. Fellow linebackers Jack Ham (Hall of Fame, 8 Pro Bowls) and Andy Russell (7 Pro Bowls) were of similar ilk.
The 90s saw the building upon the precedent set by the Steel Curtain defense. While anyone other than diehard fans will struggle to recall the quarterbacks of that era (Neil O’Donnell notwithstanding, thanks to his infamous interceptions in Super Bowl XXX), Greg “Just Plain Nasty” Lloyd (5 Pro Bowls) is a household name that may be enshrined in Canton, Ohio some day. Levon Kirkland (2 Pro Bowls and possibly the heaviest linebacker to play professional football at 270 lb) helped him carry the torch, as did Chad Brown (1 Pro Bowl) before departing for Seattle. Kevin Greene was another stalwart of that period, though he rose to prominence with the Rams and was also productive in Carolina.
The next generation featured Jason Gildon (2 Pro Bowls) and Kendrell Bell (1 Pro Bowl) before they were supplanted by Joey “The Jaw” Porter (3 Pro Bowls and 2005 league leader in sacks by a linebacker) and James Farrior (1 Pro Bowl and runner up for Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2004).
The Steelers coaching staff has hit upon a formula that produces illustrious linebackers with assembly-line regularity. The success of the players can partially be attributed to the 3-4 configuration of the defense, which relies on large bodies in the trenches to occupy blockers, but it would be shortsighted to assume that the excellence is solely a result of the scheme. The personnel’s ability to carry out the calls of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is also vital to making the 3-4 the intimidating machine it is in Pittsburgh. Speedy yet powerful linebackers are required on the outside as they have to pass-rush against behemoth offensive tackles on one play and cover flaring backs on the next. The men in the middle similarly need brute strength to take on the offensive linemen that slip by the front three defenders, but they must also have near pre-cognitive chemistry to work together in an efficient tandem. In short, the 3-4 calls for players with versatility to counterbalance the brawn they sacrifice to the 4-3.
There was a time when the Steelers were the only team in the NFL to utilize four linebackers in their lineup. Other teams are now re-modeling themselves to resemble the champs, but the Steelers are to this day members of a significant minority. So why is it that coach Bill Cowher was able to make the configuration such a success when all other teams abandoned it? And why is it that the Dallas and Cleveland 3-4s seem like wooden swords when juxtaposed to Pittsburgh’s steel blade, which gave up the least amount of yards per opposition rush in 2005?
Perhaps there is something in the Pennsylvanian water that endows Pittsburgh linebackers with their viciousness. Or perhaps it’s the uplifting effect of a terrific history. The bar has been set high in the past, and newcomers must raise their game to the established level. It’s a trend that has snowballed from customary practice into a set-in-stone tradition, and, today, many budding NFL hit-men consider themselves honored to receive a black-and-gold jersey on draft-day. In other words, Pittsburgh has become to the school of linebacking what West Point is to military academies.
Who will be the next luminary forged in this smithee of greats?
A safe bet would be James Harrison, the undrafted free agent who is currently the backup for both outside linebacker positions with the Steelers. He has impressed whenever given the opportunity. In 2004, when Joey Porter was ejected for fighting prior to kick-off against the Cleveland Browns, Harrison stepped in and recorded a sack and a quarterback pressure. That same year, against the Buffalo Bills, he grabbed a fumble out of the air and advanced the ball 18 yards for a touchdown. In 2005, against the San Diego Chargers, Harrison intercepted Drew Brees and hurdled LaDainian Tomlinson on the ensuing return. Suffice it to say that, although Harrison hasn’t yet seen abundant action on the field, he has made the most of his sporadic opportunities.
In turn, his efforts have not gone unnoticed by the Steelers. In April, Pittsburgh extended Harrison’s contract through the 2009 season, which, considering that he was still signed for 2006, is a gesture that spoke volumes about the organization’s faith in him. It appears that, at six feet tall, James Harrison is marked to become the next big thing in Pittsburgh.
The legacy is assured – at least for three more years.