May 21, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers Jarvis Jones (95) and Larry Foote (50) participate in organized team activities at the UPMC Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Ranking the best Steelers LB Corps Ever

With two months to go before the slate of preseason games begin, I confess I have more trepidation than excitement over the start of the Steelers 2013 campaign. As I’ve been saying for the past few weeks, I truly feel this will be a down year for the black and gold. There are just too many personnel issues, a serious lack of passion and direction on this team to make me think anything else but 6-9 is an attainable goal. Maybe I’ll be wrong and it’s the one time I hope I am.

Having said that, the one area I am excited about is the LB corps and the potential it holds. It has a nice blend of youth and young veterans and as usual of Steeler teams; I think it will be one of the team’s strengths rather than a weakness. Of course much of it depends on Lamar Woodley’s health and desire as well as how quickly first round pick Jarvis Jones can beat out incumbent Jason Worilds and make the impact so many predict he will. I personally like sixth rounder Vince Williams out of Florida State, when healthy he was very productive in college and he has the skills and mean streak to make an impact down the road. Steelers fans and coaches are keeping their fingers crossed that last year’s third rounder, Sean Spence can return from a gruesome knee injury and add his mix of speed and athleticism to the mix. With dependable vet Larry Foote ahead of them, both Williams and Spence won’t have the pressure on them to make an immediate impact. And fellow ILB Lawrence Timmons has become arguably their best defensive player, making plays all over the field. And while I’m not a huge Worilds fan, if he can deliver as the coaches think he can, this group has the chance to be scary good.
With that thought in mind, I thought I’d take a moment and rank what I feel are the best LB corps in Steeler history, a history as rich in the LB position as any team ever has been.

1. Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Andy Russell 1974-1976
This group really has to be first. Two are in the Hall of Fame, and Russell to me merits serious consideration from the veterans committee for inclusion as well. Russell was a Pro Bowler well before the dynasty years, making it in 1968, 1970, 1971,1972,1973,1974 and 1975. Lambert carried the torch began by the Bears’ Dick Butkus, making MLB the most feared position on defense, and Ham’s versatile play on the outside helped re-define that spot as well. With 10 superbowl rings between them, this group has no peer.
2. Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland, Chad Brown.
Sadly, this group wasn’t together long, but for the three seasons they were, they were the best in the NFL. Greene is another future hall of famer, ranking third on the all time sack list. He led the NFL in that category in 1994 and was All Pro. Lloyd’s first two years were ruined by injuries, but once he became healthy, he was a holy terror off the edge with 54.5 career sacks, making the Pro Bowl every year from 1991-1995 and was AP All Pro in 1993-95. Kirkland, despite playing between 270 and 300 pounds in his career, was fast and agile for someone his size, and could easily drop into pass coverage, amassing 1,029 tackles in his career. Brown was smaller but equally as athletic, making the Pro Bowl twice with the Steelers and twice later with the Seattle Seahawks. Equally sad is that this group has no Superbowl rings together.
3. James Harrison, Lamar Woodley, James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons 2009
Picking from here on is truly close, but Woodley and Harrison both made the Pro Bowl that year and amassed over 20 sacks between them. Foote was his always steady not spectacular self and Timmons flashed glimpses of his playmaking ability. Of course Harrison’s INT return in the Superbowl is one of the all-time great plays, so that puts this group in this spot.

4. Jason Gildon,Joey Porter, Kendrell Bell and James Farrior 2001-2004
Gildon is the team’s all time leader in sacks and both he and Joey Porter were regular Pro Bowl selections during these years. Farrior was a solid upgrade over Earl Holmes. Bell was defensive rookie of the year in 2001 and made the Pro Bowl. Sadly, his career was ended by injury and his stellar play during these years showed us what might have been had he stayed healthy. Farrior was All Pro and Pro Bowl in 2004 and displayed great leadership during his tenure.
5. Mike Merriweather, David Little, Robin Cole and Bryan Hinkle 1984
The team had moved to the 3 -4 defense in 1982 and Merriweather was the first pass rushing OLB terror for the Steelers, compiling 15 sacks in ’84. Little was solid but underrated and Hinkle continued into the Bill Cowher regime with his solid and steady play. Cole was the last LB holdover from the Superbowl years and provided the team with veteran, Pro Bowl leadership. Merriweather’s contract demands eventually rode him out of Pittsburgh, but during his time there, few were better at his position.
6. Jason Gildon, Levon Kirkland, Earl Holmes and Joey Porter 2000
Gildon had 13 sacks and made the Pro Bowl and Porter added 10 and a half of his own. Kirkland continued his solid play, stuffing the run and dropping into coverage. I loved Holmes coming out of college, but he never translated his nasty demeanor and playmaking to the NFL. Kirkland was the last link to the great 1993-1995 group and Gildon and Porter carried the torch well into the decade.
Honorable mention : Clark Haggans, Larry Foote, James Farrior, Joey Porter 2005.

Top ten Steeler linebackers ever:
1. Jack Lambert
2. Jack Ham
3. Mike Merriweather
4. Kevin Greene
5. Greg Lloyd
6. Andy Russell
7. Jason Gildon
8. James Farrior
9. James Harrison
10. Bill Saul (look him up, he was good)/ Levon Kirkland
Jason Worilds/Jarvis Jones, Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Lamar Woodley 2013 ?????
Where may this year’s group rank on this list? They certainly have the potential to move well into the top five, depending on several factors (health, motivation).
So that’s my list fans, what do you think?

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  • Adam Banig

    I think they can win he division. They’re the same team that should have win 4 or 5 more games last year but blew 4th quarter leads by losing focus and because of serious injuries to their starters.

    Timmons is a pro bowler, Woodley is a 10+ sack guy if not hurt, Worilds has 10 sacks in 10 games started, and Jarvis Jones as a rookie might be their best pass rusher. Add to that the veteran leadership of Foote who had a career year last year and I think you’re being pessimistic.

    • scott sinclair

      I said the LB corps was one of the things I was most positive about. How’s that being pessimistic?

      • Adam Banig

        My bad i missed those last few lines, still the article started off pretty pessimistic about a team that could have won the division last year with a little more luck, both in the injury department and having the ball bounce their way more.

        • Dom DiTolla


          I don’t think that they count “Should’ve Won” games in the actual “Win” column for NFL teams. Nor do they count “Should’ve Won” games in the “Win” column in any other sport.

          In fact, I’ve never seen a team handed a division title because they “Could’ve Won It” more than any other team.

          Also, I don’t think that the 2008 Steelers, 2010 Packers, 2011 Giants or 2012 Ravens were beacons of health either. Those teams overcame their large amounts of important injuries during their title runs.

          The Steelers (and their coaching staff) simply failed to “nut up” and answer the bell last season when it mattered the most.

    • Adam Banig

      Well prepared to be shocked buddy. I can’t wait for your next pessimistic article on how the steelers world is ending.

      • Dom DiTolla

        Aww, that’s nice. Not sure that I would call my work “pessimistic,” but I always appreciate the extra traffic. I for one cannot wait for another overly-optimistic homer-istic rant of yours, sir. :)

        • Adam Banig

          Yeah. iPhone typing bro. I would say I’m not overly optimistic, I’ve just seen time and time again with the steelers getting rid of the old vets, that the following year the young guys come in and do it better. Again, when Cowher came in 92. It happened when Big Ben got there in 04. It happened when Tomlin took over and some of the old guys had retired. So, if history repeats itself, this team will go from 8-8 to 10-6 or 11-5 and win the division with the younger,
          Fresher, hungrier players

  • Dom DiTolla

    That group of Porter, Haggans, Foote and Farrior needs to be in the Top 5. They won a Super Bowl and are arguably the most underrated group in team history.

    Also, shouldn’t #3 be 2008 instead of 2009? I should also add that Foote started every game that particular season at the “Mack.” While he rotated in and out with Timmons in ’08, he was still an instrumental cog in that record-setting defense’s success.

    Also, Merriweather over Harrison? “Deebo” broke his single-season sacks record and won a DPOY Award.

    • scott sinclair

      I gave the nod to Merriweather because he was the first OLB rush specialist they had and was the prototype for other to follow, inclduing Harrison. I have a bunch of old games I watched to refresh my memory and Merriweather was as good as anyone at his position at that time

      • Dom DiTolla

        Fair enough, and I agree that Merriweather needs to be Top 10. I just think that Deebo’s 2008 DPOY plus his much loftier stats and extended window of production with the club should put him higher. Plus, Merriweather’s exit from Pittsburgh was even messier than Mike Wallace’s.

  • Adam Banig

    You do realize they were only a kick off return away from sweeping the Ravens last year right?

    You do realize that vs Tennessee that had that game in hand but a few mistakes cost them and same in Dallas.

    Those three games each came down to handful of plays that the Steelers “young players” didn’t come through for them on in their first year as either starters or being relied upon heavily.

    A few plays here or there in the NFL means all the difference, especially in the 4th quarter. This team was a handful of plays away from going 11-5 and winning the division last year with a lot of young developing players on it and a few guys who were over the hill, and at times it showed and as many or more injuries than any team in the league.

    I really believe if they get the luck with injuries and the ball bounces there way a few more times this year they win the division. I don’t see any way they win less than 8 games to be honest.

    Man, I have to be honest here you are extremely pessimistic about the steelers. I think these young guys are going to shock you brother the same way the 2004 squad shocked us.

    • Dom DiTolla


      You and the rest of the homers harp on how the Steelers should have “won” up to four more games last season. But do you realize that Pittsburgh could have potentially lost to both Philadelphia and Kansas City, right?

      Think about it, the Steelers could have lost both of those games just as much as they should have “won” those three that you previously mentioned. In fact, one could say that they were a Ryan Succop missed field goal and a Michael Vick turnover-parade from being 6-10 or worse!

      By your logic, had Hurricane Sandy not happened earlier in the week that Giants game would have been different and had the Redskins not dropped 10+ passes earlier in the year they would have emerged victorious.

      This team deserved to be 8-8 last season, played like an 8-8 team and is still in the middle of a rebuilding process.

      There talent on the roster, but this franchise is another year or two away from making the postseason again. This is especially since all of the young players on defense are forced to rot on the bench during their first two years in the league unless injuries strike.

      Also, just because some of us don’t believe that this team will win 12 games every season doesn’t mean that we’re pessimistic. In fact, some people out there prefer to read honest, “non-homeristic” analysis instead of constant altar-worshiping of the franchise when they don’t deserve it.

      If this team finishes .500, I’ll be shocked. :)

      • scott sinclair

        perfectly stated Dom

    • scott sinclair

      I totally respect your views. I would love to be wrong. But there are too many “ifs” from last year..if this didn’t happen, if this guy didn’t get hurt, etc. Good teams shouldn’t rely on “ifs” They played so badly against the Chiefs and really should have lost that game. They just dropped too many clunkers to bad teams last year (Raiders, Cleveland, Tennessee) and there are just too many question marks this year. Look, they had some bad years under Noll near the end of his tenure, they had 3 straight losing seasons under Cowher, why is it unreasonable to expect a bad season or two under Tomlin? It happens to everyone. They will have a ton of personnel decisions to make after this season (Keisel, Hood, Clark, Polamalu,etc) as well so things may be a little tense going into 2014 as well. I think they had a good draft and need these kids to play and contribute NOW. But I guess we won’t know until December.

      • Adam Banig

        Well the “ifs” are truths. The steelers “were” really old, last year “was” a transition year. Last year at this time I said 8-8 or 9-7 because their defense was old and they were relying on old players coming back off of injury.

        This year they have a younger team in some of those areas and they’ve certainly improved through the draft.

        Health is always the key to any season.

        I feel different about this years steelers team than i did about last years.
        Last year they seemed old or complacent or both. This year they have younger hungrier guys.

        Jarvis jones brings youth and speed to the pass rushing. Woodley doesn’t have a high sprained ankle anymore.

        Le’veon Bell brings fresh legs and youth to the run game. He and a healthy Issac Redman is an upgrade over an injured Mendenhall and overweight Dwyer.

        Marcus Wheaton gives the steelers a great rout runner with great hands.

        Shamarko Thomas is a better player than Mundy should either of old safeties have issues.

        Some argue that Cortez Allen should have been starting last year over Keenan Lewis, and it’s hard to argue that point. He can make more plays on the ball than Kennan did. Ike Taylor will be healthy again and they’ve been building up depth at safety with Robert Golden and now Shamarko Thomas which they haven’t had in what seems like a decade. They brought back Gay to be the nickel, dime cb or reserve FS.

        DeCastro is healthy so that’s better than Colon.

        Gilbert is back, he wasn’t healthy 1/2 of last year.

        They found Kevin Beecham who can play all along the ol and that’s invaluable.

        They have younger depth along the DL now who from reports are looking good. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Al Woods.

        I like their young LB depth.

        The steelers have gone from an older team to a younger team rather quickly and I think they’re going to shock people. As long as Big Ben is there, this team will always contend for the playoffs because he’s the best Qb in the division.

        • scott sinclair

          I think Ben is a franchise QB, up there with Brady, Manning, Brees, and Rodgers. They need Allen to be a solid CB opposite Taylor. Not sure I’m so high on Golden or Beechum, I like Whimper as a young vet. I really like the LB corps, I think if he’s healthy Vince Williams is a steal.
          I said they had a good draft, but these kids are a year away. The coaches have GOT to stop letting the rookie defensive players rot on the bench. They have nothing at TE after Miller and if they can keep Sanders happy contract wise he is a good compliment to Brown. I just feel they are a year away with all the youth.

  • Radioactive Cake

    I think that you rank Jason Gildon far higher than he ever deserves. James Harrison too low… and Jack Ham is the best LB of all time, no question. He just was quiet and went unnoticed on his monster plays.

    • scott sinclair

      I think that’s fair enough. I put Gildon up there simply because he is the all time leader in sacks. And Lambert and Ham can certainly be 1a and 1b

  • Adam Banig

    The young defensive players are getting their shot now. Worilds/Jones starting oppositr woodley. McLendon starting, Allen Starting. Heyward, , Ta’amu, Woods, Fangupo, Carter, Robinson, Curtis Brown as depth.

    Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden are depth for the time being. I think they have what it takes to be the next Polumalu/Clark Tandem but for now they’re depth.

    As far as tight ends go, yes losing Miller hurts and a guy who can do it All, but the steelers do a have a receiving tight end in Paulson who was a pleasant surprise to everyone last preseason and Matt Spaeth and David johnson are good blockers.

    Will they be as good w/o miller in that position, well, no, but they’ll be serviceable.

  • Mike Nichols

    Good ranking of LB groups I think. That Lloyd / Greene / Kirkland / Brown group was crazy back in the day, but you can’t very well rank them ahead of a group that includes two HOFers and that won multiple SBs.
    I would imagine the toughest guy to rank individually on this list was Merriweather. He was one of the better LBs of his day, he just played on some very mediocre teams. Tough to rank a guy like that.
    The one guy I would consider ranking higher would be Andy Russell. MULTI-time Pro Bowler and he was a part of those early SB-winning teams. He frankly deserves HOF consideration IMO. That said, I’m not sure who you would bump out to replace him with….
    Hopefully, Jarvis Jones will be mentioned on this list some day.

  • Adam Banig

    Linebackers Coach Keith Butler on Sean Spence

    Is Sean Spence and inside or outside linebacker?
    He is going to be inside. They (Miami) have played in a 4-3 front, but it’s a different front than ours. We see him as an inside linebacker.

    Sean is a very instinctive, fast, quick kid that is very smart. He is probably best served if we can cover him up. What I mean by that is; if you look at James Farrior, he played the last four or five years at 230 pounds and when you get older like that, it’s best to be playing at 230 pounds as opposed to 235 pounds because he knows the game well enough that he is going to act fast enough and he can use the techniques and knowledge of the game, he doesn’t have to be as heavy. It’s better for him so he can keep his mobility, because that’s more important than anything else. This guy has that mobility.

    Is this guy a buck?

    I wouldn’t call him a buck, no. The buck linebacker has to be a little bit bigger and take on the guards more. We cover our linebackers up pretty good. What I mean by that is, we let them scrape and run to football a little bit more instead of coming downhill and taking on isos. The day of the iso with the middle linebacker is almost gone. Everybody is using tight ends as fullbacks and sometimes they use them when trying to lead and sometimes they don’t. A lot of stuff today is mis-direction and trying to fool you or out-number you one way and then give you a different look coming back the other way. A lot of that requires the ability to read from the linebackers now-a-days, not so much to get down and stuff a hole. Sometimes you have to do it on the goal line when you have to take on a big running back, but we’re taking on Ray Rice, we’re not taking on Jerome Bettis anymore.

    Are you happy with what you have at inside linebacker right now?

    Yes. I think we can always get better. You lose a guy like James Farrior, which you’re never going to replace because of all the intangibles he brings to the table, that’s just impossible to replace all of that. We feel good about who we have inside right now and we’ll have to grow and learn as we go.

    Where is he in terms of being NFL-ready?

    He’s going to help us on special teams. He’s not going to start at “mack” linebacker over Lawrence Timmons. That isn’t going to happen.

    James Farrior used to talk about how complex the “buck” linebacker position is. Who do you have in the pipeline there?

    The pipeline is going to be Sly (Sylvester Stevenson). Larry Foote is going to be the starter. Larry Foote knows this defense in and out. He’s been in this defense for 10 years. If anybody knows this defense it’s Larry Foote The guy behind him is Sylvester Stevenson. Sylvester has been with us a couple of years. He’s a very sharp young man, and he’ll be even better. Last year I required him to know a bunch of different positions, and he knew them well enough to put him in there when we needed him. We had some injuries more than once last year, and he was able to play different positions. That will be required of him again this year. For him and all the other linebackers, they have to move around. Lawrence Timmons moved around. He’s played inside and outside. I would prefer to leave Lawrence inside and give him a chance to get some of the recognition. I feel like he’ll play well enough to get the recognition that he deserves, because I feel he’s one of the better linebackers in the league. I feel if we can keep him at one position, inside, then he has a chance to be one of the better linebackers in the league.

    Larry Foote is a very capable starter for us, and there won’t be much dropoff by having him in there. Our two outside guys are good players, as you know. Jason Worilds really came on and played well last year for us. The more he played, the better he got. What probably hurt our young guys last year, (Stevenson and Worilds) those two guys didn’t have OTAs. Most of the time young linebackers get better their second year because of the OTAs. The first year, they come in and they go through a complex system. They’re having to think out there, and as a consequence they don’t move very fast. They’re thinking. The next year they come in and it’s night and day for them because of repetition. They go, “Oh, that’s what we did. That makes sense now.” They move much faster. Well, these guys didn’t have the benefit of those OTAs, and we had to get them in training camp and they were like rookies. Instead of having the OTAs and the minicamp again and then the training camp, they just had training camp. We took out two-thirds of that process for them to learn by having the lockout. That hurt them quite a bit in my opinion, and Jason Worilds really came on for us at the end of the year. I’m sure that Sly will do the same thing this year.

    Does Sylvester have long-term starting potential?

    I need to see more from him. He might think he does, but he has to convince me first.

    Do you see Worilds at inside or outside linebacker?

    Worilds played outside for us last year and did a great job. Can he play inside?

    Maybe he can. We’ll see. We might give him a look at that. Right now we need him at outside. Chris Carter has a lot to learn. He was one of those rookies last year that gets the benefit of that second year this year. I have my work cut out for me as a coach.

    Did they ask if you wanted Hightower and did you say, ‘No, we’re good’?

    No, I didn’t say that. (Laughter) I didn’t say that and whoever said I said that wasn’t exactly telling the truth. I didn’t say that. They didn’t ask me.

  • Brian Stokes

    mike merriweather over jack ham….What??? he should below Harrison.