Jack Lambert a true iconic hero of the 70s Steelers dynasty

Linebacker Jack Lambert #58 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
Linebacker Jack Lambert #58 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images) /

In the 1970s, the player that symbolized Steelers football undoubtedly was Mean Joe Greene. However, arguably Jack Lambert played a more pivotal role.

The Steelers in that era had more stars than one can almost remember. The NFL has inducted Ten players from that dynasty into the Hall of Fame, and fans have debated for decades which player(s) defined the team, and the debates continue. Undoubtedly, the player who gravitates to the top of the list is “Mean” Joe Green. Chuck Noll drafted him first and then built a team around him. Then the Steelers finally retired his number officially.

One could argue that perhaps Mel Blount played the most pivotal role on the defense. Certainly, he was the most dominant defensive back in the NFL to the point that the NFL had to change its defensive passing rules. However, despite being a dominant defensive back, the Steelers defensive line comprised of Greene, White, Greenwood, and Homes contributed to much of his success and Donnie Shell’s in conjunction. However, when you think of the Steelers defense, it’s not Mel Blount’s face or Even Joe Greene’s face that comes to mind.

Jack Ham played on the outside and Jack Lambert in the middle. Ham is considered one of the best to play an outside linebacker, but Jack Lambert brought something special to the team; he was the keystone of the defense that allowed them to function as the most dominant defense to ever play in the NFL.

What made Lambert so dominant for the Steelers

Chuck Noll drafted Lambert from Kent State in the 2nd round of the now famous 1974 draft. Coming into the league, Lambert was much lighter than the other premier linebackers of his day, such as Dick Butkus, who weighed 245, and Ray Nitschke, who weighed 235. His lack of weight made it problematic to face the heavier lineman. He always faced Mike Webster in Oklahoma drills in practice and generally found himself on the losing side of the heavier lineman. The deck seemed may have initially been stacked against him; however, an injury changed history.

Henry Davis played the middle when the Steelers drafted Lambert. Initially, they considered using him at the outside linebacker position. How would that have altered NFL history? Who knows, but Henry Davis suffered a career-ending neck injury. With his injury, the Steelers decided to try him in the middle and in the process, changed NFL history for linebackers.

Lambert was lighter yet taller and had more athleticism than most linebackers of his era, so they devised a brand new defensive scheme. A scheme that took advantage of his sideline-to-sideline speed no other linebacker had. The scheme also took advantage of his knowledge of the game.

His intelligence in understanding the position helped him find a way to avoid matchups with the bigger, stronger offensive linemen and allowed him to roam freely utilizing his excellent ball awareness. At the same time, the Steelers front four occupied the big guys allowing Lambert to blitz unopposed or take on the speedier receivers or backs, which linebackers at that time had never done.

The Steelers unleashed Lambert’s talents when defensive coordinator Bud Carson developed his version of the Tampa 2 defensive scheme using a 4-3 defensive alignment. While similar to the cover 2 defense, it had one difference the middle linebacker would drop into coverage if he suspected a pass play, at which point it became a version of a cover 3. It became a perfect defensive scheme allowing Lambert to amass 28 interceptions, 23.5 sacks, 17 fumble recoveries with 1479 tackles, and 4 Superbowl rings.

What made other players fear the Steelers and Lambert

Ok, the Steelers found a way to allow Lambert to dominate in the way middle linebackers never could, and he became the primary defensive play caller over his career. He, in essence, was the quarterback of the Steelers defense. Yet Lambert, besides becoming the most dominant middle linebacker in NFL history, pushed the envelope. Being the best was not good enough; he had to become the most feared to get his point across.

Fellow linebacker Jack Ham was every bit as talented and quick as Lambert. Some have argued that perhaps he played the outside linebacker better than Lambert played the middle. Perhaps it’s true, but Ham was clean, polished, and didn’t scare players when he looked at them. Lambert was the opposite; he looked rough, ragged, perhaps like something from a John Carpenter movie. He became a symbol of terror.

If Joe Greene was mean and the quintessential star of the Steelers dynasty, Lambert became the enforcer; in which if you didn’t respect their talent, Lambert would teach you a painful lesson. Over his career, he became known as Jack Splat and Dracula in cleats, thanks to his missing teeth. He had a menacing stare, which had the effect of scaring some of the game’s greatest quarterbacks before they ever snapped the ball. Just ask John Elway.

"He had no teeth, and slobbering all over himself. I’m Thinking, you can have your money just get me out of here. Let me go become an accountant. I can’t tell you how bad I wanted out of there."

If he didn’t scare you with his looks, he would hit you on the field, knock you on your rear and teach you to respect the Steelers defense. Just ask Archie Griffen, who learned a painful lesson after laying a blindside block on Lambert in one game at which Lambert taught him a lesson on the subsequent play.

Of course, there is the play that defined his career as the enforcer and intimidator of that Steelers defense. In Superbowl X in the 3rd quarter, Roy Gerela missed a field goal. Cliff Harris thought it would be smart to congratulate Gerela by slapping him on the helmet. Under today’s rules, the officials would have hit Harris with a taunting penalty. However, in 1975 what Harris did was totally legal. Even though it was legal, Jack Lambert would have none of it.

Standing beside Harris when he taunted Gerela, Lambert quickly grabbed Harris by the helmet and threw him to the ground, making a statement your not going to do that when playing the Steelers. Line Judge Jack Fette thought about ejecting Lambert but decided to allow both players to exit the field. Everyone else on the Steelers, even Franco Harris, felt that was the wake-up call they needed and then went on to outscore the Cowboys 14-10 in the second half of Superbowl X to win 21-17. In the locker room after the game, Lambert said in a post-game interview, “we’re the Pittsburgh Steelers. We’re supposed to be the intimidators”

If Joe Greene was mean and intimidating, how would you define Jack Lambert’s style of play? You might honestly say he tried to be meaner than Joe. Whatever he did, it worked. Fans in Pittsburgh wanted hard-nosed football; Lambert symbolized that, and when most people think of that intimidating defense, they think of Lambert’s image first. When the NFL made rules to protect quarterbacks, Lambert quipped, “put them in a dress.”

Jack Lambert’s legacy with the Steelers

If you could personify steel and iron, it would have to be Jack Lambert. Lambert revolutionized the position; he was tough, durable, vicious, and literally scared opposing players while racking up one defensive award after another.

In NFL history, linebackers have come and gone, and there were many great ones, but none changed the game as much as Lambert did. Lambert paved the way for a future class of athletic linebackers such as Ted Hendricks, Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, and Derrick Brooks, to mention a few.

The Steelers had a great defense; no one can argue that. The question is, was Lambert’s addition in 1974 that missing piece that brought the entire defense together as a whole? He played middle Linebacker; thus, he was the keystone of the defense until he retired.

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As great as every other defensive player was on that Steelers dynasty, would they have won four titles without Lambert? Possibly but considering it was Lambert’s gritty play and talent which rallied them to victory in 1975 and a late-game Superbowl interception in 1979 against the Rams, it’s hard to fathom how the Steelers would have fared without him.