Reliving the Pittsburgh Steelers defense from the 1970’s to today

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 23: Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates after sacking Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the game at Heinz Field on December 23, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 23: Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates after sacking Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the game at Heinz Field on December 23, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images) /

Pittsburgh Steelers football is the NFL’s representation of defense. Throughout time, no organization has mastered the art of defensive football quiet like the black and gold.

Defenses throughout the years have changed drastically from the all-out war mentality to more cerebral/finesse type of systems (albeit still physical) based on matchups against high powered offenses.

The decade of the seventies could have been described by Darwinism, “Survival of the fittest”, as teams seemingly recruited players from the penal system that were let out on conjugal visits to play. A myriad of rule changes during this decade (mostly initiated by the Steelers) was instituted to save the game and to a greater extent, a lot of players good health in the process.

The decade of the eighties ushered in the evolution of more technology and more developed players in terms of skillsets, height, and weight. These players were still physical specimens, but they had a measure of restraint placed on them regarding that physicality to protect players careers.

Additionally, for those fans that enjoyed scoring more than great defenses, viewership had increased as a result of those restraints.

The nineties and into the new millennium saw even a greater dependability on growing viewership through high scoring offenses and less on elite defenses. There were players during those two decades that were exceptional defensive players that forged their individual legends, mostly in lieu of their teams aspiring to the previous defensive stalwarts. Defensive schemes evolved also throughout the years as teams were in search of the super athlete over the monster marauders.

Steelers Defenses

One summer night recently, I and the crew took a trip over to Sharpsburg and scooted on down the hillside to the Allegheny River to catch some catfish and trout. Night fishing was da bomb because the fish were jumping all over the water in the moonlight and we had our doughboy baited on every line.

This was our sanctuary away from everything except football talk which stayed on the menu like the fish we were catching. Being babies from the seventies our indoctrination to Steeler football was through the infamous, “Steel Curtain” defense that had a reputation on and off the field that many stories had been written.

Dwight “Mad Dog” White, Ernie “Fats” Holmes, L.C. “Hollywood Bags” Greenwood and “Mean” Joe Green who was so bad that his moniker came first before his name. Sure, there were other famous defenses with nicknames like, “The Purple People Eaters” (Vikings) The Fearsome Foursome (Rams) The No-Name Defense (Dolphins) The Flex Defense (Cowboys) The Monsters of the Midway (Bears) but none like The Steel Curtain!

Back in the day, there was an area of Pittsburgh that was called, “Little Harlem” aka, the “Hill District.” Nightclubs and other sorts of entertainment dominated the area and attracted sports athletes as well as popular top line entertainers from all over the country.

The “Hill District” was so popular, that they made a television series based on it called, “Hill Street Blues”. The Steel Curtain often came to “unwind” so to speak and would venture into the hotspots with all the bravado of a neighborhood bully. Surprisingly, Mean Joe was kind of quiet and reserved but had a deep baritone laugh that drew a lot of attention. But nobody looked at him the sideways and would just grit, then turn their heads.

Mad Dog White was always loud him and Fats Holmes challenging people to a drinking contest, arm wrestling contest and sometimes fisticuffs contest. They were as rowdy off the field as they were on the field as evident by Fats Holmes in a car chase from police helicopters going into the Fort Pitt Tunnels.

Dude was wild.

Hollywood Bags Greenwood was smooth and had a smile that would light up the room and always attracted the females attention. There was a big rumble one night at the club in which the only four people that left the club unscathed was …The Steel Curtain.

The Steelers ran what is called a 4-3 base defense, that means the four down linemen would control the line of scrimmage and rush the quarterback, the three linebackers would clean up and make the plays behind them. That front four would headslap (or as we use to say, ring a dingy), body slam (Bruno Sammartino style), kick (he got Bruce lee-ed, haha) or just generally maul offensive lines to the point of submission.

One time in a Cleveland game, at Cleveland, Mean Joe actually punched a player in the stomach and then kicked him! They lived to intimidate and backed every word up and the middle linebacker, Jack Lambert was just as mean as anybody on that team. However, it was the secondary that forced the rule changes lead by Mel Blount who would literally beat his man up, all the way down the field.

The following year, they put in the contact beyond five yards rule to allow the receivers to have a little more freedom to play. Dudes were faking injuries rather than to go up against Blount, Donnie Shell, Mike Wagner, and Glen Edwards. The defensive scheme was so intricate that it birthed other schemes such as the Tampa 2 or Cover 2 (Schemes that focused on having safeties covering the middle to the boundaries of the field) with multiple blitz packages using the front seven specifically.

Head Coach Chuck Noll and Defensive Coach Bud Carson were discipline coaches but tough to their core. The team followed suit and just having the chance to see some of their practices, man, if you didn’t have heart, you were punked off of the field. The coaches didn’t interfere and would basically throw out one bone…who was man enough to take it?

Rolling into the 2000’s, the defensive schemes changed mainly because the Linebackers became more athletic in terms of coverage as well as their blitzing abilities. The implementation of the 3-4 defense which has three down linemen with four linebackers turned out to be just as menacing as the 4-3, but with more attitude.

A nose tackle anchored the line with two defensive ends setting the edge against the run. Two outside linebackers typically lined up off of the shoulders of the defensive ends while the two middle linebackers patrolled the middle.

Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel were the down three with James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote and James Farrior the linebackers that made up the front seven. Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, and Deshea Townsend made up the secondary to that 2008 Super Bowl 3-4 team. These guys were in the modern era of entertainment and didn’t frequent the inner city establishments too much but were out in the general public pretty much.

So the book on their activities is more on the private side although rumors had a few of them cutting up. Nothing like that 70’s bunch though, their tryst has created legends that will live on into infamy.

Current Defenses

There is almost an even split pertaining to teams that use the 4-3 and the 3-4 defenses with success as well as failures noted against both schemes. Evidently, it boils down to personnel and preference in terms of which teams subscribe to either.

The teams that are successful year in and out are the ones that deploy the right scheme for the right personnel. However, those are just base defenses and teams often go into “sub” packages in order to get their best players on the field. The Steelers have many “packages” that they use but right now it seems that the strength of the defense currently is on the defensive line.

I wouldn’t mind seeing four down linemen( Casey Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, and Dan McCullers) anchor that defense from time to time. With Tuitt/McCullers in the middle and Heyward/Hargraves on the ends, it could generate a great pass rush and stop the runs at the same time.

Just a thought, just a thought.

Oh snap, I got a hit on my line and I’m telling Fat Pete to hurry and get the net, he is falling and slipping all over the place while my other boys are howling with laughter. ( Too many I.C. Lights I guess). I could only imagine how that 70’s defense felt in the throws of a football fight, much like this fish was giving me to stop me from frying him.

All of a sudden, the fishing rod almost doubled over and I knew I had hooked what we called an Allegheny Catfish. These fish were known to break poles in half and Fat Pete ran over with the net and don’t you know it, slipped right into the water. I’m like, this guy, but I knew I had to be mean like Mean Joe and slap, kick, punch, or slam this fish onto the shore.

Da Burgh is a blue collar town that was founded on the principles of never giving up, so I kept at it. Fat Pete, halfway in the water and halfway on the shore managed to get the net in the water. My boys are crying with laughter by now and trust me the video should have been sent into America’s Funniest Videos.

He hooked what we thought was the fish in the net because my pole snapped and he pulled the net to shore only to drag not a fish, but an old dirty boot in the net. I was done after that and It was almost morning anyway so we packed it in, tempted to leave Fat Pete with the boot and the catfish.

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