Friday, August 3, 2012

Just What Is "Steeler Football?"

While looking over Training Camp information and getting ready another season of Steeler football, I thought of this topic. What does the title of this article mean to you? We've all said those words in some fashion, and there might be different answers for different people. What, though, does "Steeler football" truly mean?

For the people who make up the fandom realize that it's more than simply rooting for a team. We're a part of a greater whole. We are Steeler Nation. It's a nation with nebulous boundaries that grows day after day. In truth, Steeler Nation is worldwide. This whole country is our neighborhood.

For those, though, living in western Pennsylvania, raised in the Pittsburgh area or from the area of steel mills and boilermakers, there's a pervasive blue-collar, hardworking mentality. It permeates the entire area and sets the tone for its favorite sons. From Morgantown, West Virginia to north of Erie, Pa., fans work hard and they expect their team to also.

For that reason, maybe the minds of some fans automatically go to the running game. Names like Byron "Whizzer" White, John Henry Johnson, Frenchy Fuqua, Rocky Bleier, Franco Harris, Frank Pollard, Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker all come to mind. The Steelers truly have a rich history of running the ball.

In fact, since the AFL-NFL merger, no team has run the ball more or more effectively than the Pittsburgh Steelers. The ground-and-pound, three yards and a cloud of dust, massive offensive line-led approach has produced 89,525 yards--no other team is even close.

Compelling arguments can easily be made for running the ball, but it's by no means the end of the story. Because other fans may automatically go in their mind's eyes to the defense. And the Steelers have a very proud history here as well. That is, if "proud" means pummeling its opponents into submission. Even in years when the Steelers as whole were less than spectacular, the defense made sure the opponents knew they'd been in a fight.

The defenses, in fact, have been so good over the years that they've earned two very different, distinct and daunting nicknames: the Steel Curtain and Blitzburgh.

The Steel Curtain, interestingly, was initially named for only the front four defensive linemen of the 1970s. Those linemen were Dwight "Mad Dog" White, Ernie "Fats" Holmes, Mean Joe Greene and L.C. "Hollywood Bags" Greenwood.

Eventually the nickname spread to encompass the defense as a unit and stuck for years thereafter. Not a surprise, though, with players like the Jacks, Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, Mike Wagner and Andy Russell early and Robin Cole late terrorizing offenses. Well-deserved was that reputation for greatness too: 1974-defense scores first and first-ever safety in the Super Bowl; 1976-the fiercest and most dominant defense not to win a Super Bowl...maybe ever; and 1978-then record for fewest points allowed in a 16 game season. They also hold the distinction of being the only defense to have a trio, Greene, Jack Lambert and Blount, to be the NFL Defensive Player of the Year three years in a row.

All-in-all, for over a decade the Steel Curtain caused so many sleepless nights for offensive coordinators that they should've been sponsored by No-Doz. Don't remember? Maybe this will stir the memories:

The 1980s saw the legends complete their résumés for Canton and, in doing so, brought some rust to the Steel Curtain. It was an up and down decade that offered only two top five NFL defensive rankings: 3rd overall in 1983 and 5th overall in 1984. In fact, they wouldn't see the top five in defense again until 1993. Enter Dick LeBeau.

The second of the Steelers fear-inspiring nicknames came with a decidedly different tone. During his first stint with the team, from 1992-1996, first as defensive backs coach and then as coordinator, LeBeau was the architect of the Blitzburgh defenses. He originated the zone blitz--where a lineman drops into coverage, generally the area occupied by a blitzing (linebacker) teammate--and brought the fire back to the blast furnace.

After a hiatus, he returned to Steeltown in the 2004. Since then the NFL just forgoes formality and sets aside a perennial top five spot for his defenses. His units have been controlled chaos and have bewildered and battered opponents. Blitzburgh is back! -

His zone blitz schemes have made the careers of more than a few players. Principally among those are linebackers. Which brings us to the next argument.

The argument could be made that the Steelers truest legacy is its linebackers. If It Ain't Steel posted an article regarding the Pittsburgh Steelers being "Linebacker, Inc." You can't possibly think Steeler football without thinking of Capt. Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, the aforementioned Russell and Cole, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Green, Jason Gildon, Levon Kirkland, Earl Holmes, Joey Porter, and most recently James Farrior, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Many teams around the league would salivate at the thought of having a linebacking history such as that...and I purposely left out some names. -

Not only have the Steelers defenses instilled fear over the years as a whole, but they've also always had that one LB who just wasn't...who had just a little...who was, well... Let's just say they always have that one about whom my grandmama would say, "Somethin' wrong w'that boy. He touched." Does anybody disagree that Lambert, Lloyd and Porter didn't and Harrison doesn't just scare everybody? I didn't think so.

What I don't tend to hear as much as a definition for Steeler football is the passing game. That's odd considering the Steelers have had two great quarterbacks who've won multiple Super Bowls: Terry Bradshaw (4-0) and Ben Roethlisberger (2-1). Bradshaw's records as a Steeler may eventually all be eclipsed by Big Ben, but his legacy is intact. Beyond that, Big Ben is etching his own niche in Steelers and NFL history. Here's a piece If It Ain't Steel wrote where an article is quoted that compared Big Ben's first seven years to another QB who was 4-0 in Super Bowls:

Further than that, wide receiver is a position that may not be as deep or rich as others, but it is one that contains two Hall of Famers, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, and one who'll don a yellow jacket in the future Hines Ward. There have been ones who've shown flashes over the years as well: Louis Lipps, Kordell Stewert (who fits in two main categories) and Yancey Thigpen. All made their mark on the team and the NFL in some fashion. Most importantly, they've been responsible helping the Steelers win.

Speaking of Super Bowls as we were before, let me remind everyone that three of the six game MVPs were wide receivers: Lynn Swann, Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. Which, I believe, brings us finally to the center of this gridiron maze: Super Bowls and winning in general.

Each and every aspect of what was covered in this article was intricate to the ultimate goal. Despite what Harris, Bettis and Parker have done in getting to and in the Super Bowls, the running game alone couldn't bring such great success seen over the years. 

As dominant as the defense has been, whether blue-collar tough or blitzkrieg complex, it itself would never have been able to sustain that dominance. It needed help from the offense. 

Although the passing game has produced five Super Bowl MVPs and numerous Pro Bowlers and All-Pros, they would never have had the chance to give us the beautiful game winning plays by Swann, Stallworth, Ward and Holmes respectively without the defense and/or runners setting up the opportunities. 

Pointedly, they are always greater than the sum of their parts. It takes those parts to create the whole that just keeps winning and winning. 

So, that's it right there. When you really think about it, wherever your mind may initially go when you hear those words, it's simple: Steeler football is winning football!