Monday, March 19, 2012

The Pittsburgh Steelers: Linebacker, Inc. - Where Does James Farrior Rank?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a very long and storied linebacker tradition. The names from the '70s dynasty easily come to mind, but the greatness at the position didn't start or end there. In fact, it's alive and well and still at the confluence.

One linebacker who masterfully represented that tradition just ended his days with the Steelers on March 2nd of this year. That man was the Happy Days-loving, University of Virginia product known as James Farrior. Or, "Potsie" to teammates and Steelers fans.

From 2004-2011 James Farrior was the unquestioned leader of the defense. In the locker room and on the field, he had his teammates ears and their respect. The defensive huddle was his - all with being incredibly soft-spoken. His was a quiet leadership, yet he was heard as clearly as much more colorful and vocal players on the defense.

Farrior's level of play did justice to past Steelers linebackers virtually from the start. This brings a question to mind, though: where does Farrior rank among the greatest of Steelers linebackers? He would seem to have the résumé to have his name mentioned amongst the greats. There are too many Pro Bowlers, All-Pros and Super Bowl winning linebackers to do an actual top 10 or 20 list, and it might just simply be too subjective an argument. So, let's stay with Farrior for now and then look at all of the other greats and leave it to posterity to decide.

In Farrior's first year with the Pittsburgh Steelers, acquired via free agency after the 2001 season because of his being seen as somewhat of a bust by the Jets, Farrior recorded 82 tackles throughout 14 games. But he was just getting started.

In 2003, his second with the Steelers, he recorded 141 tackles and one interception. In his third season with the Steelers, Farrior made 94 tackles, three sacks, and a career-high four interceptions. He also finished second to Ed Reed for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.

During the Pittsburgh Steelers 2005 campaign, Farrior missed 2 games due to an injury, but played very well in the 14 regular season games and 4 postseason games in which he appeared. He finished the season with 119 tackles and a Super Bowl ring.

Farrior maintained a stellar career, including another near MVP-like season in 2008, until two out of the last three years when his play dipped from the level Steelers fans were used to seeing. All told, Farrior's accomplishments included 154 games played and started, 1,078 tackles, 30 sacks, 12 forced fumbles, 8 interceptions, 2 Pro Bowls, 2 All-Pro selections, 2 Super Bowl rings and a Steelers MVP. Plain and simple, Potsie was one of the best.

Who then are the other CEOs of Linebacker, Inc.? Let's start with the Chairman of the Board, take it through his executives and then filter our way down to middle management and then to the ones who didn't quite make it past entry level positions. I'll even mention a couple of promising young interns as well. I'm staying out of the mail room, though. They're a strange breed down there.

Remaining JOINT CEOs -

Jack Lambert, or "Captain Jack", was selected by the Steelers in the second round of the famed 1974 NFL Draft. Though a natural athlete, Lambert played quarterback at Crestwood high school and then switched to defensive end at Kent State, many thought he was too small to play linebacker in the NFL. While most of his pro career he was reported to be 6'4" and 220 lbs, he measured only 6'3½" and 204 lbs. as a rookie.

When the Steelers took a chance on Lambert to replace an injured player in Lambert's first season, he made the most of it and went on to earn the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. He was a central figure on a great Steelers defense that went on to win their first Super Bowl by beating the Minnesota Vikings 16-6 in Super Bowl IX.

Lambert was the Steelers starting middle linebacker, for nine seasons, starting right inside linebacker for two seasons, and, according to the Steelers media guide, averaged 146 tackles per season through his 10th year. He recorded only 19 in his 11th and final season because an injury suffered to his toe (Turf Toe) forced him into retirement.

Lambert's accomplishments are downright gaudy. He is a member of the 20/20 club as he amassed 28 career interceptions and (officially) 23½ sacks (sacks weren't kept as an official statistic until 1982). He collected the 1,479 career tackles referred to earlier, was named to nine straight Pro Bowls, was an a first-team All-Pro seven times, was a four-time Super Bowl winner, a member of the NFL's and Steelers' respective 75th Anniversary teams, the 1970s and 1980s All-Decade Teams and was the 1976 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. *whew* With the knee-pumping antics, the missing front teeth, the "That'll cool your ass down!" sound bite, the throwing of safety Cliff Harris to the turf after he disrespected Roy Gerela by patting him on the head after a missed kick and many other highlights, he is the reality that the myth would strive to be. Blood, sweat and no tears: Captain Jack.

Jack Ham was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second-round of the 1971 NFL Draft. Jack Ham was so good that he won the starting left outside linebacker job as a rookie. He was first-team All-Pro six years (1974-1979) and was named to eight straight Pro Bowls (1973-1980).

Ham was blessed with tremendous quickness and, according to former Steelers coach Chuck Noll, he was the "fastest Steeler for the first ten yards, including wide receivers and running backs." He was one of the few outside linebackers who could play pass defense as well as the NFL's top safeties. Although he was a tremendous hitter, Ham was known as being a player who couldn't be fooled and was seldom caught out of position.

Ham's career statistics and accomplishments are only slightly less opulent than Lambert's. Some of his numbers include 21 fumbles recovered, 32 interceptions and a Steeler media guide unofficial 25 sacks (again, the NFL did not begin recording sacks until 1982, Ham's final year, so he officially has just three sacks). Though he didn't play in Super Bowl XIV because of an ankle injury, Ham was a member of all four '70s Super Bowl winning teams during his twelve-year career.

As you can see, Ham had a penchant for the big play. He was guided by some of the best football instincts ever for a linebacker, and was duly recognized for them as he was also member of the NFL's and Steelers' respective 75th Anniversary Teams and was a member of the NFL's 1970s All-Decade Team.

Greg Lloyd - this guy scared everybody. Lloyd was just plain nasty, and he was a personal favorite. Lloyd was notorious for wearing that worn, old t-shirt at practice and under his game jersey that read, "I Wasn't Hired For My Disposition." He tried proving it every Sunday too.

Lloyd was injured his first year (1987), and most of his second year, but became a starter during the 1989 season at outside linebacker where he would wreak havoc for nearly a decade (147 games). He became the emotional and fiery leader of the Steelers defense.

Lloyd was indeed the most feared player in the league for his time. Jim Harbaugh, former NFL quarterback and current coach of the San Francisco 49ers, claims he wasn't afraid of anything until he played against Greg Lloyd, the man he respected and feared on the gridiron more than anyone.

A true enforcer. He was everyone. But, he was also a true leader and student of the game. Lloyd continued to make an impact on the defense even while injured by teaching young linebackers like Jason Gildon, dubbed "Baby Lloyd", the finer points of the Steelers linebacking tradition.

Team President Dan Rooney once said of Greg Lloyd, "He was one of the best, not just one of the Steelers' best, but one of the best in the league. Greg could play in any era. He has the makeup, whether it's in 1998 or 1938. He's just a football player." He'd know.

Steeler fans themselves recognized this and showed it by voting Lloyd to their 75th anniversary team. He was also voted to the Pro Bowl five times (1991-1995), was first-team All-Pro twice (1993 & 1995), and was United Press International's (UPI) AFC Defensive Player of the Year for 1994.

Like Lambert, Lloyd had his own share of sound bites. He once could be heard telling the Dallas Cowboy sideline after stopping a running play before it got started, "I told y'all don't run that sh** over here!"

He famously dissed former NFL quarterback Joe Namath in 1991 when Namath, then an analyst of NBC, accused Lloyd of playing dirty. Lloyd responded by saying "Who is Joe Namath? This is a guy who, if he played in the league today, I'd probably just go hit him late and see what he did, just for the hell of it. Joe Namath can go to hell; he can kiss my ass."

But the most famous is after beating the Indianapolis Colts for the AFC crown, Lloyd forgets that he's on camera, or just doesn't care, and tells his teammates, "Let's see if we bring this damn trophy here next year along with the fu**ing Super Bowl." Just plain nasty.

Joey Porter was drafted in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft. Joey was an emotional, cocksure player who commanded respect, earning him the nickname "Peezy". Peezy was another in an increasingly long line of Steelers linebackers that struck fear into the hearts of NFL players.

Joey received his share of accolades as well. While with the Steelers he was a three-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro (2002, 2004 and 2005). Also voted to the Steelers 75th Anniversary, Joey was a member of the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. He had 376 tackles, 60 sacks, 31 passes defended, 14 forced fumbles, 10 interceptions and a Super Bowl win. He was a force to be reckoned with at all times.

Six degrees of separation: During the preseason of his rookie year, Joey wore number 95, the first player to wear the number since linebacker great Greg Lloyd was released after the 1997 season. Whether it was despite his similarities to Lloyd in terms of playing style and vocal leadership or perhaps because of it, Joey changed his jersey number to 55 before the start of the regular season in order to develop his own identity. Fast forward to November 14, 2004 against the Browns in Cleveland. During warmups, Joey felt Browns running back William Green disrespected him as Green passed him. A fight ensued (after Peezy straight clocked him) and both were ejected. James Harrison, who would ultimately replace Joey in the starting lineup after Joey was released, would get his first NFL start.

James Harrison, nicknamed "Deebo" (based on the character of the same name from the movie "Friday") and "The Silverback" because of his incredible strength (the latter epithet given to him by former Steelers HC Bill Cowher), went undrafted in the 2002 NFL draft, because it was thought he was too short, he's 6'0", to play linebacker, and too light, 240 lbs., to play on the defensive line. Nonetheless, the Steelers signed Harrison as an undrafted rookie in 2002, making him only the second linebacker from Kent State to play for the team since Hall of Famer Jack Lambert. Good company.

The Silverback has his share of detractors as well, ones who claim he's a dirty player. But, enough about Roger Goodell.

Deebo is fierce. Once he learned the game and all the nuances of the position he plays, Deebo began to wreck shop on the NFL. He's even been called "Mr. Monday Night" because of the incredible games he's had on Monday Night Football.

Then, on January 5, 2009, Deebo was named the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the 2008 season, becoming the first undrafted player to win the award.

During Super Bowl XLIII after that same 2008 season, Harrison intercepted a pass from Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner at the goal line and ran back the length of the field for a 100-yard touchdown at the end of the first half. Harrison collapsed in the endzone and spent several minutes catching his breath as his teammates celebrated. It was the longest play in Super Bowl history and helped the Steelers defeat the Arizona Cardinals 27-23. It was also the longest interception return in Steelers franchise history, surpassing the 99-yard return by Martin "Butch" Kottler which occurred in the club's second ever game and was the oldest team record.

Just like his predecessors, Harrison has many awards lining his trophy case. He has so far been named to five Pro Bowls, he has four All-Pro selections, and the aforementioned Defensive Player of the Year award. His is also a laundry list of accomplishments so far in his career: 547 tackles, 58 sacks, 27 forced fumbles, 18 passes defended, five interceptions and a partridge in a pear tree!


These players could have been higher had they played longer or had they not been overshadowed by truly great linebackers:

Andy Russell played linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1963 and from 1966–1976, the two-year gap being from when Russell temporarily left the team for the Army. He was an early member of Pittsburgh's famed Steel Curtain defense.

Russell made seven Pro Bowl appearances (1969, 1971-1976), one first-team All-Pro, the Steelers' MVP in 1971 and earned two Super Bowl rings in Super Bowl IX and Super Bowl X. Russell intercepted 18 passes in his career.

Levon Kirkland was a massive inside linebacker. He was only 6'1",  but weighed anywhere from 275-300 pounds during his career. Despite this, he had great speed and agility, especially for a big man. He became a starter at inside linebacker for the Steelers in his second season, 1993.

Kirkland made the Pro Bowl after the 1997 season, making a career-high and team-leading 126 tackles and career-high five sacks, as the Steelers went to the AFC Championship game.

He was a two-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro (1996 & 1997). He made 1,029 tackles, 18.5 sacks and 11 interceptions in his career with the Steelers. He was also a member of the NFL 1990 All-Decade Team.

Jason Gildon, deemed "Baby Lloyd" because of his style, build and ferocity being similar to Greg Lloyd.

Gildon played a large role on the Steelers special teams unit during his first two years before being inserted into the starting lineup in 1996, after All-Pro pass-rusher Greg Lloyd went down in the season opener with a torn knee ligament. Gildon turned in 7.0 sacks in 1996 and landed a permanent spot at outside linebacker. He never looked back from there.

Gildon was a three-time Pro Bowler (2000-2002) and one-time All-Pro. Along with 520 career tackles, Gildon's major accomplishment came when he set the Steelers all-time sacks mark, breaking L.C. Greenwood's record of 73, in 2003. He would eventually register 77 total with the Steelers.

Robin Cole was an underrated linebacker for twelve seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Because he played with many great Steelers linebackers, especially early on, some feel he did not get as much recognition as he deserved. But make no mistake, Cole more than held his own.

In Cole's second year, the Steelers reached Super Bowl XIII. The Steelers started veteran linebacker Loren Toews against the Dallas Cowboys. "After a [few] of series, I came in and played the rest of the game," remembered Cole, as the Steelers won, 35-31.

Coming into his own in 1979, Cole helped lead the Steelers to Super Bowl XIV.
"It was huge," said Cole, "I consider it my most memorable game." Cole's performance spoke volumes in the Steelers' 31-19 victory.

"I was told that I was the MVP going into the fourth quarter," Cole said. "I wound up second to Terry (Bradshaw). For a linebacker to be MVP, you have to play (well) the whole game. A defensive back can return a couple interceptions for touchdowns or a quarterback can throw a couple of bombs."

Cole was named to the Pro Bowl and to the All-Pro team in 1984 when the Steelers reached the AFC championship game and was an alternate in 1985 and 1986. --

Earl Holmes was another underrated linebacker the Steelers had briefly in their midst. Just ask him.

When drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 4th round of the 1996 NFL Draft out of Florida A&M University, Holmes said to Cowher, "Congratulations, coach. You just got the best linebacker in the Draft." He may have been correct.

Holmes, 6'2" 242 lbs, gained a reputation as a solid run stopping inside linebacker. He played his first six seasons with the Steelers where he totaled 547 tackles (392 solo), 9.5 sacks, an eye-popping 56 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, four fumbles recovered, 21 pass deflections, and one interception for 36 yards, all in 81 games.


These are two players who may have been good or even great during their careers, but only made a brief stop in Steel Town. Their contributions while in the Black and Gold nonetheless are worth noting:

Kevin Greene - Two-time Pro Bowler (1994, 1995) and one-time All-Pro (1994) while with the Steelers. He sacked the quarterback 35.5 times while a Steeler and was a member of the 1990s All-Decade Team.

Mike Merriweather's was elected to the Pro Bowl in three consecutive seasons (1984-1986) and was 5th in the NFL in 1984 with 15 sacks, a Steelers record that stood until broken by James Harrison in 2008.


These are the two Steelers linebackers who are currently on the cusp of greatness. They could go on to greatness or have average careers and eventually fizzle out. (Kendrell Bell, for instance, was named a starter his rookie season, was AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and then was lost because of having no head for the game and because of injuries. So, early success doesn't mean continued success):

LaMarr Woodley was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round with the 46th overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft.

With two sacks in both the Divisional Round and Conference Championship, Woodley became the first player in NFL history to record three consecutive multi-sack playoff games, dating back to the Steelers' 31-29 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Wild Card Round of the 2008 playoffs. In Super Bowl XLIII, Woodley extended this streak to four games when he sacked Kurt Warner twice, forcing the game-ending fumble on Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner with 5 seconds remaining in the game to secure the win. He had double-digit sacks three consecutive years and had nine sacks in 10 games in an injury-limiting 2011 season. He's been a Pro Bowler and All-Pro once (2009).

Lawrence Timmons could possibly have the greater promise of the two. Despite getting less acclaim than many on the Steelers defense, Timmons led the team in tackles with 135 and also recorded 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions. His numbers dropped last season, but that was largely due to injuries to several players and his being asked to fill voids. He essentially played out of position much of the season.

Timmons career numbers thus far include 384 tackles, 21 passes defended, 17 sacks, eight forced fumbles and four interceptions. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has said that his versatility allows Timmons to be able to put up such numbers, but it also allows LeBeau to use him in many different ways. He considers that a great asset to being able to institute multiple sets and to be able to disguise coverages.

The list you just reminisced over represents nearly 50 years of Steelers linebacking greatness, from Andy Russell to James Farrior. At least one All-Pro in each decade during that time period, several Super Bowl participants and winners, many Pro Bowlers and countless award winners. The Pittsburgh Steelers: Linebacker, Inc.