This Is Steel Curtain III; Don’t Forget About the 1990s

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.

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  • Anonymous

    At 28 years old, my view of the Steelers is different from yours. My parents were both from Pittsburgh and fans, and my grandparents all live there too, but I moved around a lot growing up, only living in Pittsburgh for two years when I was 12 and 13. So I’m a Steeler fan by birth, and Pittsburgh sports in general is something of a tie to prior generations of my family for me.

    The first time I was old enough to understand and be interested coincided with the coming of Cowher in 1992. So for me, the Steelers have always been good. They’ve always had good defenses. Some years are better than others, of course. And there are some sporadic bad ones.

    It just so happens that three of those bad years came in a row from 1998-2000. Three of the good years in the mid 90s happened to end with AFC championship losses (the single most heartbreaking play I remember ever seeing is Pupunu coming open in the middle of the field and taking it about 50 yards), and one ended with a Super Bowl loss. 2.5 of the good years recently have ended in championships.

    But there’s no 1992-97 group. And there’s no 2004-present group. There’s just The Steelers, one continuous sweep of consistently high-level football with expected years of variation both up and down.

  • drinkingclub

    No mention of Darren Perry! Outrage!

  • Anonymous

    Neither the Cowboys nor the 49ers kept the Steelers from playing in the Super Bowl five of six years from 1992 through 1997.

    • Ted

      good point, Israel. That was primarily due to the first two reasons I noted. However, few Super Bowl championship teams in history could have beaten the Steelers in SB XXX. The Cowboys of that era, however, were easily one of the best teams ever, but still barely hung on to win due to better QB play.

      Moreover, we were two lousy plays from No. 3 corner Tim McKeyer, or a single pass to the end zone from O’Donnell away from beating an inferior and visiting Chargers’ squad who we statistically and physically dominated in the AFC championship game to conclude the 1994 season. However, I believe most of us admit that we would have had little chance against the 49ers that year in the SB.

      • DC in ATL

        Good article Ted. I think the biggest difference between the 90′s and now is the quarterback. According to Football Outsiders DVOA ratings, O’Donnell was league average or worse from 1992-94 and was above average only in 1995 when the Steelers got to the Super Bowl (and was terrible after
        he left as a Free Agent). Roethlisberger was the #2 QB in DVOA this year (yes, even better than Rodgers).

        Sticking with FO’s stats, I’m not sure I agree that the 1994 Steelers had little chance against the 49ers. Steelers weighted DVOA in 1994 was 37% (almost as good as the 40% from the this year’s team) only behind the 49ers that year who had a 41.5%. The 49ers were very, very good, but the Steelers were playing at a very high level at the end of that season.

        We’ll never know for sure, which only makes that fluky loss to the Chargers even more painful I guess..

  • JCRODRIGUEZ

    The greatest defensive units of all time were just capable of winning one superbowl each, 2000 Ravens and 1985 Bears. Of the 3 versions of the Steel Curtain, as discussed on this post, the one from the 90′s have the same factor as that kept both Ravens and Bears from continuous success: A Non Franchise QB. We should be greteful to have Ben paired with this current version, as much as the guys from the 70′s (specially towards the last part of the decade, when the rules were changed) were to have Terry.

    I have nightmares of our current team being QB’d by Slash and/or O’Donnell. Let that never hapen again.

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  • Stephen

    I think recycling the name obscures the differences between each group’s accomplishments. For that reason, in my mind, it goes Steeler Curtain, Blitzburgh, Hittsburgh.

  • El Amante las chicas calientes

    Great Article Ted. I’ve been a Steeler fan since SB 13 and 14. I suffered through the Stoudt, Malone, and Brister years (although Malone and Brister did get them to the playoffs) – and I still proudly wear my #95 Greg Lloyd jersey. Its a little irritating when other Steeler fans ask me who he is and awesome when someone sees me in that jersey and remembers, which usually is accompanied by something like ‘he was the MAN/BEAST/BEST’ – the only thing that kept him (Lloyd) from being universally known was his bad relationship with the media and many people forget that his getting double teamed opened up opportunities for Greene. One thing often overlooked – Lloyd often times dropped back into coverage and finished his career with 11 INTs.

    Something I have to add about that 1995 SB team – every starter on defense had a sack except for the below mentioned Darren Perry – who went on to help coach/develop Troy Polamalu (DB coach). What you posted about their secondary was on the money. IMHO Woodson was a better defensive back then Deion Sanders who was useless on run support with his inability to tackle; and how many sacks does ‘Primetime’ have?

    I often wonder how things would have played out if not for the mistakes of O’Donnell (Super Bowl XXX), Tim McKyer / Deion Figures – who was a rookie at the time (1994 AFC Championship). I do not believe the Steeler Defense of the 90s would have been used, abused, embarrassed and destroyed the way San Diego’s was in SB 29; and while a team with Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Brent Jones, Richard Dent and the above mentioned Sanders (among others) would’ve been hard to handle; however this same team was beaten by basically the same Dallas team that almost went down to the Steelers in SB 30.

    I am quite confident that had the Steelers been blessed with a Roethlisberger type QB (franchise) during 1992-2004, the Steelers would’ve made it to Super Bowl XXIX and Super Bowl XXX would’ve been a win since Dallas’s offense was SHUT DOWN until O’Donnell started throwing the ball to Larry Brown. Lets also not forget that the Steelers went to the AFC championship game again against Elway in 1997 (his last Super Bowl win) and against Tom Brady/Drew Bledsoe’s Patriots in 2001 (their first Super Bowl win) – my how different things could’ve been if they had had that franchise QB.

  • 7in2011

    The problem with those non-championship ’90s/early’00s teams who I’m also so very fond of was, yes, QB-play such as what obviously happened in SBXXX along with Kordell and also our special teams (best example of them all the ’01 AFCC but I think there was always SOME weakness we had that would JUST prevent us from getting over the top. 1994 I think it was our being TOO reliant on the blitz. After that 2-2 start we LIVED by the blitz and ended up DYING by it against the unlikely Chargers who exploited/BURNED us with those two bombs (don’t even remember the names of the WRs who made those big plays and, hey, Indy almost beat us the SAME WAY the next year in the AFCC). I DO think if we advanced in ’94 we would have had a very good shot vs Frisco, most likely BEATING them being we matched up real good against them but if we couldn’t cut the mustard in our own conference, then the more-balanced if however ‘boring’ Chargers deserved to be there even if it meant getting humiliated. As for Dallas one year later, let’s do remember (painful as it is to admit) they had SWITZER coaching them! If JJ were on the sidelines I’m sure we still would have given them somewhat a respectable showing (better than Buffalo each of the 2 SBs prior) but those Neil INTs wouldn’t have made a difference; and DO give Dallas props that day for their own pass-rush (Haley & Co in Neil’s face all day FORCING him to throw those passes). I also like to think we beat Green Bay in ’96 and the Rams in ’01 if we advanced in each of those AFCCs but we DIDN’T and it was always SOMETHING holding us back; that SOMETHING you NEED to have addressed by the end of January or some coach will expose it. Let’s not even go into a what-if scenario for ’04 because despite us going 15-1 and us beating them during the REGULAR season, we simply weren’t in the same league as the Pats. I seriously think that the BEST/championship-worthy Steelers team of the Cowher-era was that very team they fielded on Dec’05/Jan’06 that actually and deservingly so took all the marbles in Detroit! And OF COURSE I don’t buy into all the ’bad-call’ excuses Seattle still cries on about to this day. We finally WERE #1 again in 2005! 

  • Guada

    Gerald Williams, Ray Seals, and Darren Perry were beasts on that defense too.