Stories on the blending (as opposed to comparisons) of the current era of Pittsburgh Steelers with the squads from the 1970s are long overdue, as are debates on if this present group qualifies as a dynasty (they do with a win on Sunday).
However, mainstream media are acting as if the Steelers have had two great runs: 1972-79 and 2004-present, which makes me feel even worse for all the great but seemingly forgotten Steelers from 1992-97. That group went to the playoffs six straight years, hosted three AFC Championship games, and were an errant Neil O’Donnell pass away from winning a Super Bowl against a Dallas squad that was arguably as talented as any ever in the NFL.
And the inability of those great Steelers teams to capture a Super Bowl title (it is not a failure to constantly win but not win the Super Bowl) is why Hall of Famer and NFL Network personality Rod Woodson is the only Pittsburgh defender you are now hearing about from those 1990s teams despite the oversaturated media coverage over the last two weeks focusing on Steelers’ history.
But the Steelers’ not adding another Lombardi Trophy in the 1990s had nothing to do with Steel Curtain II, a dominant defense comparable to the current group, which should be labeled Steel Curtain III.
The awesome linebacker corps of Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland and Chad Brown was at least as good the current, dominant quartet of James Harrison, LaMarr Wodley, Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior. Two more names must be added to further strengthen both units, as Jason Gildon, the Steelers’ all-time sack leader and an eventual three-time Pro Bowler, started in 1996-97, while underrated, four-time Pro Bowler Joey Porter was the heart of the Steelers’ defense from 2004-06.
Both recent linebacking units were more instrumental to their defenses’ dominance than the famed 1970s trio of Hall of Famers Jack Lambert and Jack Ham, and seven-time Pro Bowler Andy Russell. However, that group also had the four-man Steel Curtain defensive line in front of them, led by the greatest defensive tackle of all-time in Joe Greene.
While not comparable to the original Steel Curtain foursome, the current Steelers linebackers have also had very good/great defensive linemen in front of them in Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Kimo von Oelhoffen and now Ziggy Hood.
Joel Steed, a solid nose tackle who went to one pro bowl in 1998, was really the only above-average defensive lineman the Steelers had on their roster for nearly 20 years prior to Smith and Hampton starting for the first time on a 2001 team that ended up advancing to the AFC Championship game.
Ham once said that any linebacker will tell you that he is only as good as the defensive linemen in front of him. That is why the Steelers’ linebackers of the 1990s may have been the best of all three corps listed above, because they played behind pedestrian defensive linemen.
Lloyd joined Lambert and Ham as the only Pittsburgh linebackers to be named first-team, NFL All-Pro over three consecutive seasons. Kevin Greene is the No. 3 all-time NFL sack leader behind Bruce Smith and Reggie White, and should join those two in the Hall of Fame.
If I had to put together a 53-man roster of all-time Steelers to compete against other squads, I would utilize a 3-4 defense, and start both Lloyd at strongside linebacker opposite Ham, and the 275-pound Kirkland as my run-stuffing mike linebacker, playing next to Lambert. Harrison, Farrior, Russell, Porter and Greene would round out the roster as reserves even though all would probably start for most franchises on their all-time teams.
One advantage Steel Curtain II had over Steel Curtain III was a better secondary. Woodson rivals Ronnie Lott as the best all-around defensive back in NFL history and Carnell Lake is probably the most underrated Steelers player over the last 20 years.
A college linebacker at UCLA who converted to safety in the pros, Lake was a five-time Pro Bowl selection, including 1995 when he had to move to No. 1 corner (the first time he had ever played the position) after Woodson tore his ACL in the season opener. Pittsburgh still went to the Super Bowl that season.
The Steelers ranked second in the NFL in scoring defense in 1992, third in total defense in 1993, second in both categories in 1994, third in total defense in 1995, and second in total defense in 1996 before slipping to sixth in total defense in 1997.
In other words the Steelers of the 1990s had five consecutive seasons of finishing in the league’s top three in scoring and/or total defense. Neither the 1970s Steelers or the current Pittsburgh defense have equaled that feat.
But the Steelers of the 1990s were not just a great defense. They also led the NFL in total yards rushing during that 1992-97 span, finishing No. 1 in rushing offense in 1994 and 1997, and No. 2 in 1996.
In addition to bruising, big-time backs like Barry Foster and Jerome Bettis, the Steelers’ offense line of that era, led by Dermontti Dawson, was probably better than their offensive line of the 1970s led by Mike Webster and far superior to the current group.
The only three things that kept those Pittsburgh teams from winning at least one Super Bowl were the lack of a franchise quarterback (although O’Donnell went to the Pro Bowl in 1993 and played well in 1995 until the Super Bowl), horrendous special teams coverage (which still stinks in this era), and the fact that Pittsburgh run of success unfortunately came at the exact time of the Cowboys’ dynasty of the 1990s.
Real Steelers fans, however, will never forget the greatness of those teams that kept coming up just short in the playoffs but physically dominated opponents each season on both sides of the ball.
I just wish mainstream media would quit talking and writing like the Steelers fell off the map from 1980-2004, a period that saw the team play in six AFC championship games, a total only surpassed by the Broncos’ seven appearances over that 25-year span. And from 1992-97, the only better franchises in the NFL were the Cowboys and 49ers.