clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Who belongs on the Steelers “Team of the Millennium”? Part 2: Defense and Special Teams

New, comments

Who would appear on the Steelers 53-man all-star roster for the last twenty years?

Super Bowl XLIII
The Steelers Defense, Super Bowl XLIII
Photo by Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images

Earlier, I posted an article asking who belongs on the Steelers “Team of the Millennium,” on offense. If you haven’t seen it, the link is HERE. This time, we’re going to walk through the defense and special teams.

In brief, my thinking is that the NFL rules (and consequently, NFL strategies) began to shift in favor of passing offenses in the early 2000s right as a new crop of passers entered the league. Couple this with players’ careers lasting longer and longer, and the last twenty years feel more coherent than any two random decades from previous eras.

An all-star list like this is tricky to assemble because the Steelers consistent success means many superb players have come through town. But if it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth arguing about.

As with before, I’ll list starters for the “Team of the Millennium” but also the backups to fill out a 53-man roster, and ten-player practice squad. Then I’ll leave it to Steelers Nation to argue it out in the comments.


Part 2: The Defense

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers
Joey Porter, James Farrior, Chris Hope, and Troy Polamalu gang tackle Baltimore’s Todd Heap in a 20-7 Steelers victory, December 2004
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Starters

DE – Aaron Smith
NT – Casey Hampton
DE – Cameron Heyward
OLB – James Harrison
ILB – Ryan Shazier
ILB – James Farrior
OLB – T.J. Watt
CB – Ike Taylor
CB – Joe Haden
SS – Troy Polamalu
FS – Minkah Fitzpatrick


Defensive Line (7):

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers
Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, and Aaron Smith line up in the snow to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals 27-10, November 2008.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Aaron Smith (starter) – DE
Casey Hampton (starter) – NT
Cam Heyward (starter) – DE

Brett Keisel – DE
Stephon Tuitt – DE
Kimo VonOlhoffen – DE/NT
Javon Hargrave – DE/NT

Most the defensive positions are remarkable for who’s on the bench. In this case: Brett Keisel, a Pro Bowler, team leader, and starter of two Super Bowls. The Beard rides the pine because you can’t promote him above Aaron Smith (the prototype for a 3-4 DE) or Cam Heyward (a two-time first-team All Pro, as well as team emotional leader). This is a compliment to Steelers linemen, more than an insult to Keisel (who will also be a special teams ace). Casey Hampton, meanwhile, is probably the best pure nose tackle in team history. He may never be matched.

Off the bench with Keisel, are rising stars Stephon Tuitt (who needs to stay healthy this year) and Javon Hargrave (who unfortunately priced himself out of town last year), along with veteran Kimo VonOlhoffen. Kimo deserves better than to be remembered as the guy who busted Carson Palmer’s knee; he was a starter on some terrific defenses, including the 2005 champs.

Also considered:

Chris Hoke – NT
Steve McLendon – NT/DE
Ziggy Hood – DE

When Hoke stepped in for superstar Hampton for the bulk of the 2004 season, the Steelers defense didn’t miss a beat– leading the league in points, yards, and rushing yards. Then he went back to the bench and never complained. He’s probably my favorite backup lineman of all time. I kept Kimo and Hargrave over him because both of those guys can play DE as well. Both McLendon and Hood were better all-around linemen than I think we remember, but neither of them is challenging any of the guys who made the squad.


Outside Linebacker/Edge (4):

Divisional Playoffs - Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers
James Harrison sacks Joe Flacco in the 2010 AFC Playoffs; the Steelers would win 31-24.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

James Harrison (starter)
T.J. Watt (starter)

Joey Porter
Jason Gildon

Here is another one where the bench tells you how stacked the position is. When you’re choosing between Joey Porter (a three time Pro Bowler and two-time first team All Pro) and T.J. Watt (two Pro Bowls and a first-team All Pro in first three years), you’re doing the lord’s work. I went with Watt maybe because of recency bias, but you can’t go wrong either way. Meanwhile, James Harrison might be the best overall edge player in team history and belongs on the Steelers Mt. Rushmore of intimidators (alongside Jack Lambert, Gregg Lloyd, and Joe Greene). Just like Antonio Brown, I wish he’d shut up now, but he was one of my all-time favorite players to watch.

Jason Gildon and Lamarr Woodley are a toss-up. Gildon was selected to three Pro Bowls and a first-team All Pro in the 2000s and retired as the Steelers all-time sack leader. Woodley, meanwhile, only had one Pro Bowl but was a postseason monster, recording two sacks in each of his first four playoff games, including icing a Super Bowl with a strip-sack of Kurt Warner. It’ hard to go wrong here.

Also considered:

Lamarr Woodley
Clark Haggans
Jason Worilds
Bud Dupree

Haggans and Worilds were good players but not in the same category as the rest. Ask about Dupree if he has another couple years of double-digit sacks.


Inside Linebacker (4):

Wild Card Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals
Ryan Shazier forces and then recovers Jeremy Hill’s fumble in the final minutes of the Steelers 2015 Wild Card comeback.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Ryan Shazier (starter)
James Farrior (starter)

Lawrence Timmons
Larry Foote

Sitting Lawrence Timmons was hard to do, but James Farrior was a coach-on-the-field, a sure tackler, and a first-team All Pro (runner-up for DPOY in 2004), while Ryan Shazier was developing into one of the best players in football (regardless of position) before a gruesome injury derailed his career. Larry Foote gets the fourth spot based on longevity and reliability.

Also considered:

Kendrell Bell
Vince Williams
Earl Holmes

Kendrell Bell was a flash in 2001, but couldn’t stay healthy. Earl Holmes was probably better at his best than Larry Foote, but he only logged two years in Pittsburgh after the millennium, where Foote was a valuable teammate for eleven. Williams is a good player and probably underrated, but he’s not in the same class as the names above him.


Cornerbacks (5):

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers
Joe Haden intercepts New England’s Tom Brady in the fourth quarter of a 17-10 Steelers win, December 2018
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Ike Taylor (starter)
Joe Haden (starter)

Chad Scott
Deshea Townsend
William Gay

Ike Taylor was easy to pick – the best cover corner on this team since Rod Woodson. He had terrible hands, but used to shadow the opponent’s best every game. You could make the argument Steven Nelson was more of a shut-down corner than Joe Haden last year, but Haden’s interception count, and his longer body of work get him the second starting spot.

Deshea Townsend was chronically underrated on those great defenses of the late 2000s but he was reliable and smart. Chad Scott lost his wings too early, but for three or four years he was a legit number-one corner averaging 61 tackles, 14.5 passes defensed, four picks, and a touchdown from 2000-03. The toughest call was for William Gay, in what I’m probably imagining is the nickel spot. Mike Hilton, in particular, has a case there. Hilton is certainly a harder hitter and better against the run, but I went with Gay because he was a better cover man, could play outside corner if needed, and had such an uncanny nose for the end zone.

Also considered:

Mike Hilton
Steven Nelson
Keenan Lewis
Ross Cockrell
Bryant McFadden
Willie Williams

I could be convinced to reconsider Hilton, or Nelson (who would have made the team with another year or two at his 2019 level), but the rest were all guys who either didn’t last long enough (Lewis, Williams) or were too inconsistent (Cockrell, McFadden, Lewis again). Like the offensive line, cornerback was a position that went through a couple of dry spells this century (which is hard to remember now that it’s a strength again).


Safeties (5):

AFC Championship
Troy Polamalu sends the Steelers to Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII
Photo by Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Troy Polamalu (starter) – SS
Minkah Fitzpatrick (starter) – FS

Ryan Clark – FS
Chris Hope – FS/SS
Brent Alexander – FS

Another embarrassment of riches at safety: Polamalu is one of the best players in NFL history and already a Hall of Famer; Fitzpatrick is already a first-team All Pro, despite not even being on the roster until week 3. There’s a legitimate argument that Clark deserves the starting spot over Fitzpatrick, but I’ve rarely heard of a single player improving a unit as profoundly as Minkah improved the Steelers defense. (Seriously — Peyton Manning going to Denver? Randy Moss in New England? That’s about all I can think of, and both of them got a full offseason to learn their new teams.) I’m betting we haven’t scratched the surface with him yet.

Clark and Chris Hope were easy choices to make the team too. Both started Super Bowl wins at free safety, adeptly reading not just the opponent but whatever Polamalu was doing on a particular play. I can’t pick only free safeties, but Hope can also play strong safety. Alexander gets the final slot because he was surprisingly productive, snagging four INTs per year and starting every game for four years. (Plus he’s now a high school math teacher, and there’s something cool about that.) I considered swapping him out for another strong safety, but his numbers were simply too good.

Also considered:

Will Allen – SS
Tyrone Carter – SS
Mike Mitchell – FS
Lee Flowers – SS

Carter and Allen played admirably, but neither were starters for most of their time here. Mitchell was probably better than most people believed, but he was no Ryan Clark (which is why Clark made the team and he didn’t). Flowers was a tougher call. I remember him as a run-stuffing thumper but something of a liability in coverage. It’s possible he was ahead of the curve on being that hybrid ILB/S player, playing right up at the line. He’s probably the first name in if I was adding a SS.


Special Teams (3):

Wild Card Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals
Chris Boswell kicks the game-winning 35 yard field goal in the final seconds to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2015 playoffs
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Chris Boswell – K
Dan Sepulveda – P
Greg Warren – LS

Special teams were oddly hard to pick, but for different reasons. Many of the kickers were good — Boswell and Jeff Reed were both outstanding players, and Shaun Suisham became one (he was spottier when he first arrived). Kris Brown wasn’t terrible either. Reed ultimately seems like the most fun to hang out with, but I went with Boz because (2018 notwithstanding) I trust him the most. Also, I like that he’s never missed a playoff field goal, and because I have fond posteason memories of him burying the Bengals in a rain storm in his rookie year 2015 and kicking six field goals to beat KC in 2016.

By contrast, punter was tough because most of the guys were mediocre at best. Gardocki never had a punt blocked in his career, but was never particularly impressive. Miller and Sepulveda were close to equal stat-wise (Miller was healthier, but Sepulveda kicked farther). I went with Sepulveda because he was a boomer when healthy. Greg Warren is my long snapper because I remember him.

Also considered:

Jeff Reed – K
Shaun Suisham – K
Kris Brown – K
Josh Miller – P
Chris Gardocki – P


Practice Squad (10):

NFL: JAN 09 AFC Wild Card - Steelers at Bengals
Martavis Bryant scores a circus-catch touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Steelers 2015 AFC Wild Card win.
Photo by John Sommers/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Martavis Bryant (WR)
Antwaan Randle El (WR/Punt Ret./Emergency QB)
Mwelde Moore (RB/Punt Ret.)
Marcus Gilbert (OT)
Chris Hoke (NT)
Lamarr Woodley (OLB)
Earl Holmes (ILB)
Kendrell Bell (ILB)
Lee Flowers (SS)
Mike Hilton (CB)

It’s probably cheating to add these extra names too, but if we’re talking about a genuine team, this is part of a team. Ultimately, this unit was probably the toughest to assemble because there were so many right-on-the-cusp players I wanted to keep. I really wanted to include DeAngelo Williams and Steven Nelson in particular. In any case, most of the guys above got discussed in this article or the previous one and any of them could easily have made the team himself.


One thing I’ve learned from assembling these units: There’s a lot of talent that has come through Pittsburgh. I’d line this team up against any in the league — actual squads or “best of” versions. If you’re a fan of black and gold, you’ve been lucky for a long time.

See you in the comments. Go Steelers.