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?