Ranking The Top 10 Best Defensive Linemen in Steelers History

Gurusdeportivos.com

By: Sean McGeown, @seanpmcgeown
SteelerNation.com

 

When you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers and their formula for success as a franchise, one word comes to mind: Defense. They have largely been known for having a vaunting unit on the defensive side of the ball, for hitting hard and not giving up anything easy, and making you work for every yard. The Steelers always pride themselves on their ability to win up front in the trenches, stuffing the run, and pressuring the quarterback, and have had a lot of talented guys to play on the defensive line to do so throughout the decades.

It was difficult, but I’ve made a list of the top 10 defensive linemen to play for the Steelers, not including outside line backers (only 4-3 or 3-4 defensive tackles and ends). The list includes players from the last 70 years, with members from the legendary “Steel Curtain,” to guys on the roster today. It is opinion based, taking statistics and accolades into account, as well as character and leadership, etc. Also it must be noted tackles and sacks were not an official stat for some of the guys on this list, with tackles becoming official in 2001, and sacks in 1982.

Without further adieu, lets get started.

 

10. Stephon Tuitt (2014-Present)

Drafted in the 2nd round in 2014 out of Notre Dame, Stephon Tuitt has spent his whole career thus far in black and gold. He got onto the field his rookie year as a back-up, but officially became a starter the following year in 2015. He is a 3-4 defensive end, and has wreaked havoc when healthy, racking up 200 tackles, 23.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 1 interception to date. Unfortunately the key word there was “when healthy”. Tuitt has battled the injury bug a bit, not having a full 16 game season since his 2015 season. To me that shows that with the numbers he has in a limited amount of games, he is a force to be reckoned with and could easily find himself higher, or lower depending how you look at it, on this list by the end of his career. He will look to have a bounce back 2020 season after suffering a season-ending pectoral injury in 2019 and will be coming back to a defense that finished with the league lead in takeaways and sacks last season.

 

9. Brett Keisel (2002-2014)

Brett Keisel aka “Da Beard” finds himself 9th on my list. He was a guy who was most likely drafted to be a back-up or special teams guy, as most seventh rounders are. Clearly that wasn’t what he had in mind. A 3-4 defensive end, he started out as a back-up his rookie year and went on to miss the entire 2003 season due to injury. He then returned and carved out a role for himself on the defense, and eventually became a starter in 2006. He won two Super Bowls with the Steelers in 2005 and 2008, memorably recovering the fumble to secure the Steelers’ 6th championship in Super Bowl XLIII. Keisel was a key piece to a dominant Steelers defense that never ranked outside of the top 10 in yards per game from the time he was drafted in 2002 to 2012, and ranked outside the top 5 just 3 times. He was a part of the legendary 2008 squad that ranked first in points allowed and yards per game, ranking first in passing yards and second in rushing. In 156 games, Keisel piled up 408 tackles, 30 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, 9 fumble recoveries, and 2 picks, one of which was returned for a touchdown. As mentioned before he won 2 Super Bowls with the team and appeared in a third in 2010, as well as being voted to his lone Pro Bowl that same year. Aside from his play, he is known for his legendary beard he began growing in 2010, and began an annual charity event known as “Shear Da Beard” where he would raise money for the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and shave his beard, and begin growing it out again after the event.

 

8. Aaron Smith (1999-2011)

Another 3-4 defensive end, Aaron Smith was an absolute force during his twelve year stint, all with the Steelers. Similar to the guys already listed, he was not a starter in his rookie year, however, from 2000 to 2006 he appeared in every game for the Steelers, starting in all but one. He was considered an ideal fit for the 3-4 scheme the Steelers run, and over his career, he tallied 453 tackles, 44 sacks (8th on the all-time Steeler list), 7 forced fumbles, 9 fumble recoveries, and 1 interception. Smith is a two-time Super Bowl Champion, winning in 2005, and 2008, and made the Pro Bowl in 2004. He was a starter and key contributor to the same defenses listed earlier with his long time running mate Keisel, and was a crucial piece to the d-line and the defense as a whole in his career as a Steeler.

Defensive Ends Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith, ranked 9, and 8 on the list. Photo Credit: Brettkeisel.com

7. Ernie Holmes (1971-1978)

The first from the legendary Steel Curtain to make the list. An eighth round pick, Ernie Holmes was known for his ferocity and was widely known as the most feared man on the Steelers defense at the time. He played defensive tackle on their 4-3 scheme, and although sacks weren’t a stat at the time, he is credited with 40. He had a six game streak with a sack in each game, and had team highs in 1974 and ’75, with 11 and 10.5 respectively, and was known as one of the best pass rushing defensive tackles in his time playing. He won two Super Bowls with the Steelers back to back, in 1974 and ’75. Both games were memorable performances by the defense, in Super Bowl IX the defense did not allow a single offensive point, and in Super Bowl X, they sacked Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Roger Staubach seven times. Holmes was also named to the Second Team All Pro in 1974. Previous head coach Chuck Noll was often vocal that Holmes never got enough credit, and that’s probably true. He just happened to be on a legendary unit that was overflowing with talent. He still had a fantastic career, and lands at number seven on my list.

 

6. Cameron Heyward (2011-Present)

The current captain of the defense for the Steelers, Cam Heyward lands at number 6 on my list. He is considered a 3-4 defensive end (listed as a DT on Steelers.com), and he is absolutely dominant to say the least. He is the only first rounder listed to this point, drafted 31st overall in 2011. Although Heyward started as a backup, he still saw the field in all 16 games of his rookie and sophomore campaigns. He eventually became a starter in 2013 mid-season, and hasn’t looked back since. Aside from suffering a season ending injury in 2016, he has never missed a game (aside from resting during week 17 of the 2017 season with the team already securing their playoff seeding). In 134 games played thus far, he has made 397 tackles, 54 sacks (sixth all time for the Steelers), 6 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries, and 30 pass deflections. He is fresh off his third consecutive Pro Bowl appearance (2017-2019) and second election to the First Team All Pro in three seasons (2017 and 2019). He just seems to get better year in and year out, and has been a model of consistency as captain for the defense. There’s only one thing missing to complete his resume and move him higher up the list than he is now, and we all know what that is. He’ll look to bring home a seventh Lombardi for the Steelers next season.

Heyward and Tuitt celebrating. Still currently playing, they rank 6 and 10 on the list. Photo Credit:SteelCurtainRising

5. Casey Hampton (2001-2012)

Casey Hampton aka Big Snack finds himself in the top 5 on my list. He may not have the sack numbers as his teammates on this list (Keisel and Smith), but he was often the reason for their success. Drafted 18th overall, Hampton made an almost immediate impact as 3-4 nose tackle for the Steelers. He won the starting job during his rookie year, and made it a habit to make it a nightmare for running backs to try and run up the middle, drawing double teams often, and stuffing gaps routinely. An absolute anchor for a defense that dominated for most of the 2000’s, he set the tone up front as the anchor in the trenches and exemplified what that defense was about; smash mouth, hard hitting football. In his 12 year stint (all with the Steelers), he made 5 Pro Bowls (2003, 2005-2007, 2009), won 2 Super Bowls (2005 and 2008), and was named to the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team. He recorded 350 tackles, 9 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries for his career. As of right now, he is probably the best pure nose tackle to play for the franchise.

 

4. Dwight White (1971-1980)

Another member of the famed Steel Curtain defense in the 70’s, Dwight White is a Pittsburgh legend. Nicknamed “Mad Dog” for his ferocity on the field, White was a crucial member of the d-line for the curtain, playing 4-3 defensive end. He famously played in Super Bowl IX right after being hospitalized with pneumonia and losing 20 lbs while hospitalized, and recorded a sack for a safety on Hall of Fame quarterback Frank Tarkenton, which were the Steelers first points in a championship game ever. He recorded 46 unofficial sacks in his 9 year career, as well as 4 interceptions and 7 fumble recoveries. He won four Super Bowls, two back to back (1974-1975, 1978-1979), made 2 Pro Bowls (1972 and 1973), Second-Team All Pro (1975), and the Steelers All Time Team twice. Former team owner Dan Rooney called white “one of the greatest players to ever wear a Steelers uniform,” and I think most fans would agree.

 

3. Ernie Stautner (1950-1963)

The oldest player and one of the most historic, Ernie Stautner ranks number 3 on the list. Drafted in the 2nd round of the 1950 NFL Draft, Stautner set the standard for what the Steelers looked for in a defensive player with his toughness, and was a cornerstone player for the franchise. In his thirteen year playing career, all with the Steelers, he made the Pro Bowl 9 times (1952-1953, 1955-1961), the All-Pro Team 4 times (1955-1956, 1958-1959), won the NFL Best Lineman Award in 1957, was named to the NFL 1950’s All-Decades Team, the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team, has his #70 jersey retired, and is a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. A decent resume to say the least. Sacks weren’t recorded for him during his tenure, but he recorded 3 safeties, 23 fumble recoveries, 2 interceptions, and only missed six games throughout his entire career. A model of consistency who’s toughness on the field will never be forgotten. Stautner also went on to have a successful coaching career after retirement.

 

2. L.C. Greenwood (1969-1981)

The other defensive end in the Steel Curtain opposite of White, L.C. Greenwood caused absolute mayhem to opposing offenses. Drafted in the 10th round in 1969, Greenwood was another household name in Pittsburgh that will not soon be forgotten. At 6 foot 6 inches and 245 lbs, he routinely found himself in opponents backfields, stuffing the run and sacking the quarterback. He led the Steelers in sacks six times (unofficially) in his career, his season high being 11 in 1974. He recorded 73.5 unofficial sacks all together, as well as 14 fumble recoveries. He was named to the Pro Bowl six times (1973-1976, 1978-1979), the First-Team All Pro twice (1974-1975), the NFL 1970’s All-Decade Team, and the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team. He is a four-time Super Bowl Champion, and is often remembered for sacking Roger Staubach four times in Superbowl X. Many believe he should have been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame (myself included), but has gone on record saying he was at peace with it, feeling the players from the Steel Curtain that were voted in represented the defense as a whole. A testament to his character and humility.

 

1. Joe Greene (1969-1981)

To no ones surprise, the legendary “Mean” Joe Greene takes the number one spot. The centerpiece to the Steel Curtain, and widely regarded as the greatest Steeler of all time, Greene changed the course of Pittsburgh Steelers history. Drafted 4th overall in 1969, it took Greene no time to get acclimated to the NFL, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 1969. That was just the tip of the iceberg. Greene went on to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors twice (1972, 1974), was voted to 10 Pro Bowls (1969-1976, 1978-1979), five First-Team All Pro selections (1972-1974, 1977, 1979), three Second Team All-Pro selections (1971, 1975-1976), and was named the NFL Man of the Year in 1979. He won four Super Bowls in 1974 and ’75, and 1978 and ’79, solidifying the Steelers as a dynasty and etching the Steel Curtain into the history books as one of the best defenses of all time. Greene was also extremely durable, only missing nine games his whole career. He was named to the NFL 75th and 100th anniversary all time teams respectively, the NFL 1970’s All-Decade Team, the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team, and is a member of both the College and NFL Hall of Fame. His #75 Jersey is the only other Steeler jersey retired along with Stautner’s. Greene is commonly talked about as one of the greatest players of all time, but aside from being an exceptional player, he was a great leader as well; and although he was widely known for being fierce on the field, he is a good and authentic person off of it. Few people have as many accomplishments as Greene, and although the guys listed before him are exceptional, there is no doubt he is the greatest defensive lineman to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steel Curtain. from left to right: White, Holmes, Greene, and Greenwood. All 4 made the list, with Greene and Greenwood being the top 2. Photo Credit:247sports.com

 

That wraps it up. My top 10 defensive linemen to ever put on a Steelers uniform. What are your thoughts, SteelerNation? Do you agree with my list? If not, what would you change? Let us know in the comment section on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

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