The 10 best safeties in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Still Curtain ranks the all-time best safeties to wear the black and gold.
Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers
Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers / George Gojkovich/GettyImages

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been known for their start-studded defenses throughout the years. Though Hall of Fame cornerbacks, linebackers, and defensive linemen come to mind, this franchise hasn't lacked star power at the safety position.

The value of the safety position has changed throughout the years, and the quick passing game has taken away some of the things that safeties do best. However, these safeties had no problem making their presence felt on the football field.

The Steelers have had numerous Pro Bowl and All-Pro safeties who have been a part of some of the best defenses the NFL has ever seen. As amazing as these players were, one iconic figure reached legendary status and stands above the rest of the group of Pittsburgh's top 10 safety rankings.

Criteria for selection

Various factors were considered when comprising these all-time safety rankings. As objectively as possible, I gauged each player's impact on their respective defense and how they raised the floor of their team.

Statistics are also important. As playmakers in the secondary, the amount of splash plays helps separate these safeties from the pack. Likewise, I considered playmaking ability in the clutch and crucial moments that helped the team succeed.

Individual accolades were also factored into these safety rankings, as a few of these safeties were considered among the best players in the NFL at their position. Leadership qualities and intangibles were factored into these rankings as well.

The 10 top safeties in Pittsburgh Steelers history

10. Brent Alexander

Brent Alexander was signed by the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent in 1994 and didn't make his way to Pittsburgh until 29 years old in 2000. Alexander was a free safety for the Steelers and he made his presence felt immediately.

The versatile defensive back played four seasons in Pittsburgh in the second half of his career and racked up 15 interceptions. Despite a 12-year NFL career as a starting safety, Alexander never earned Pro Bowl honors.

The well-rounded safety was good at many things, but his best trait was his ability to stay healthy. Alexander never missed a game in his entire NFL career. For someone who played a dozen seasons of professional football, that's quite the accomplishment.

9. Lee Flowers

Lee Flowers wasn't a safety who wowed fans with electrifying playmaking ability and ball skills, but he was an enforcer by every sense of the definition. At 6'0'' and 213 pounds, Flowers acted like a hybrid linebacker.

The strong safety did most of his damage in the box, routinely stopping the run dead in its tracks. Flowers was selected by the Steelers in the fifth round of the 1995 NFL Draft but didn't become a starter until his fourth season.

When he finally saw significant action, Flowers became a tone-setting hammer -- recording 101 tackles and 3 forced fumbles during his rookie season. In his final five seasons, Flowers started 75 games of the 76 he was available for. The bruising safety recorded just four interceptions in eight seasons, but he was one of the best strong safeties in Steelers' history.

8. Glen Edwards

One of the least talked-about starting defensive backs of the Steel Curtain dynasty in the '70s is Glen Edwards. Playing alongside safeties Donnie Shell and Mike Wagner, Edwards worked as a safety valve for the NFL's most aggressive defense.

Edwards joined the Steelers in 1971 but didn't earn a full-time job on defense until year three in 1973. That's when the defensive back exploded for a six-interception season, which included 186 INT return yards and a defensive touchdown.

Edwards started 71 of 89 games for the Steelers over seven years before playing his final four years in San Diego. The free safety recorded 25 interceptions, 652 interception return yards, and two defensive touchdowns in Pittsburgh while helping the Steelers to their first two Super Bowl wins before his departure from the team after the 1977 season.

7. Darren Perry

The Pittsburgh Steelers averaged over 10 wins per season from 1992 to 1997 and Darren Perry deserves some credit for the defense's success during this time. Perry is one of the most underrated safeties in Steelers history who deserves more respect on his name.

From the moment he entered the league as Pittsburgh's eighth-round pick in '92, he made his presence felt -- recording 6 interceptions in 16 starts as a rookie. The talented free safety never lacked playmaking ability. In his third season, Perry notched 7 picks, 112 interception return yards, and two forced fumbles.

In seven seasons with the Steelers, Perry only missed two games in his final year, and he started all 110 games that he suited up for in black and gold threads. Perry finished his career in Pittsburgh with 32 interceptions and 515 tackles, but never earned Pro Bowl recognition.

6. Mike Wagner

Mike Wagner was one of many Pro Bowl defensive backs for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1970s. Despite being an eleventh-round pick in 1971, Wagner found himself in a starting role at strong safety from day one.

In his second season, Wagner slid over to free safety and recorded six interceptions before moving back to strong safety in 1973 and managing eight picks. Though he wouldn't top this statistical single-season output, Wagner earned Pro Bowl honors in 1975 and 1976. He was also voted Second-Team All-Pro in '76.

Unfortunately, Wagner suffered injuries during his final four seasons, which caused him to miss significant playing time. He still managed to start 116 of 119 games with the Steelers and was a key member of all four Super Bowl victories in the '70s.

5. Ryan Clark

These days, Ryan Clark is known as a media personality and NFL analyst, but in the 2000s, he was feared for the bone-shattering hits he delivered from the free safety position. After spending two years with the Giants and two with Washington, Clark found his way to Pittsburgh in 2006 -- one year after the Steelers emerged victorious in Super Bowl XL.

Injuries in his first two seasons led to Clark suiting up for just 19 total games in 2006 and 2007, but he developed a reputation as an enforcer right away.

In 2008, Clark was an essential piece of the league's best defense that won Super Bowl XLIII. Clark recorded at least 100 tackles in each of his final three seasons in Pittsburgh while earning Pro Bowl honors in 2011. His uncanny ability to cover for Troy Polamalu as a safety valve in the secondary will always be underrated.

4. Carnell Lake

Rod Woodson wasn't the only dominant Steelers defensive back of the 90's. Carnell Lake was the epitome of consistency in Pittsburgh's secondary.

Lake, a second-round pick by the Steelers in 1989 was immediately thrust into a starting role at strong safety. The 6'1'', 210-pound defensive back would remain at strong safety for five seasons before being asked to line up all over the secondary.

With 16 interceptions in ten seasons with the Steelers (154 starts), Lake never put up gaudy numbers in the takeaway department, but he was a savvy player without a weakness in his game. Lake earned four Pro Bowls and was named First-Team All-Pro in 1997 before departing for Jacksonville in 1999.

3. Minkah Fitzpatrick

Minkah Fitzpatrick was considered a blue-chip prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft. Selected by the Dolphins with the 11th overall pick, Fitzpatrick was used out of position early in his career before Miami traded him to the Steelers in 2019.

From there, it was all uphill. Fitzpatrick earned first-team All-Pro honors in back-to-back seasons in 2019 and 2020. Over his first 30 games with the Steelers, the dominant free safety combined for nine interceptions and four defensive touchdowns.

Fitzpatrick fell back down to earth in 2021 before another All-Pro season in 2022 and a Pro Bowl season in 2023 (despite missing seven games). He is still writing his own story, and with a few more dominant seasons, Hall of Fame consideration is not out of the question.

2. Donnie Shell

It took the selection committee a long time to give Donnie Shell a bust in Canton, Ohio, but the remarkable safety eventually made his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the Class of 2020. Shell had unmatched career longevity at the safety position -- playing all 14 seasons as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Shell was an undrafted free agent who was signed just after Pittsburgh's legendary 1974 draft class that included four Hall of Fame players. Alongside players in the secondary like Mel Blount, Mike Wagner, Glen Edwards, and J.T. Thomas, Shell still found a way to stand out.

Shell earned a starting role in his fourth season in 1977. This was followed by five straight Pro Bowl seasons from 1978 to 1982 -- recording three First-Team All-Pro honors during this span. By the end of his career, Shell played 201 games for the Steelers (162) and tallied 51 interceptions.

1. Troy Polamalu

There was never any doubt that Troy Polamalu was Hall of Fame-bound when his playing career ended, and the legendary safety was voted in on the first ballot. Though the Steelers traded up in the first round for the USC product in the 2003 NFL Draft, Polamalu didn't start a game until his second season. As soon as he did, fans knew he was destined for greatness.

Polamalu earned 5 interceptions in his second NFL season, which was accompanied by Pro Bowl and Second-Team All-Pro Honors. By year three in 2005, Polamalu had already established himself as one of the best safeties in the game -- reaching First-Team All-Pro status and finishing third in Defensive Player of the Year voting.

The gifted safety eventually earned his DPOY award following the 2010 season. Polamalu had an eerie ability to see the play unfold seconds before it happened, and no safety ever played the game like he did.

Injuries cut six of Polamalu's twelve NFL seasons short, but he was so dominant at his peak that all of his missed time didn't stop him from earning eight Pro Bowls, four First-Team All-Pros, Hall of Fame honors, and being named to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 2000s. He did all this while proving to be one of the most important players on a two-time Super Bowl-winning Steelers team during the 2000s.

The 10 best safeties in Pittsburgh Steelers history by Approximate Value (AV)

Approximate Value (AV) is a metric from Pro Football Reference that attaches a number to every player season since 1960.



Years With Team

Approximate Value


Donnie Shell




Troy Polamalu




Carnell Lake




Mike Wagner




Ryan Clark




Darren Perry




Minkah Fitzpatrick




Glen Edwards




Lee Flowers




Brent Alexander