Every year, multiple Steelers players suit up in the black and gold for the first time. From draft picks to free agent signings to trade acquisitions, every new campaign provides a fresh look for athletes and fans alike.
Last season, Chase Claypool, Kevin Dotson and Eric Ebron headlined a group of Steelers making their franchise debuts; this season, that list includes Najee Harris, Trai Turner, Melvin Ingram and potentially more.
With training camp just days away, the start of Steelers football—and newcomers’ inaugural Steelers games—feels palpable. Thus, there’s no better time to count down the 10 best initial Pittsburgh performances in franchise history.
For context, I classified a “debut” as a player seeing notable playing time on his respective side of the ball—special teams action didn’t count. Also, a player didn’t necessarily have to start the game, as younger pros often aren’t called on immediately after kickoff.
If you feel that I left out any sensational Steelers entrances, feel free to let me know down below. But without further ado, here is my pantheon for the top opening acts to begin a Steelers career.
10. Joey Porter (1999)
After being taken in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft, Porter had a solid preseason, leading the Steelers in tackles. However, that feat still wasn’t enough for him to earn a starting role in Week 1.
Nevertheless, Porter tallied a sack and a forced fumble in his first career game against the Browns, both of which came on one play. Such a strip sack occurred with the Steelers up 43-0 with just 1:55 left in the game, but it still proved to be a portentous start to eight years in Pittsburgh—a tenure that put him fifth all-time in franchise sacks.
9. Antwaan Randle El (2002)
Despite the fact that the Steelers boasted star WR Hines Ward alongside solid wideout Plaxico Burress, Randle El was able to become involved in a number of facets during his earliest taste of NFL action.
Although the Steelers opened the 2002 season with a loss to the Patriots, Randle El accumulated 87 receiving yards on six catches. Moreover, he rushed for nine yards and was even involved on a passing play, a throw which he completed for five yards.
Not only did Randle El lead the Steelers’ position players in scrimmage yards in that game, but he also showcased his versatility—particularly his passing prowess, something which proved key in Super Bowl XL.
8. Eli Rogers (2016)
Rogers’ path to the NFL was sinuous at best: not only was he undrafted out of Louisville, but after finally inking a deal with the Steelers, he was inactive for his entire rookie campaign in 2015. In fact, Rogers likely would not have even started Pittsburgh’s first game of his second year if not for an injury to Markus Wheaton.
However, none of that fazed Rogers as he and the Steelers opened the 2016 season on Monday Night Football against the Washington Redskins. Rogers mustered six catches for 59 yards and a touchdown, proving to be a solid complement to Antonio Brown.
Rogers’ numbers weren’t earth-shattering, per se. But considering the circumstances he endured to reach his first career game—as well as the low expectations that most presumably had—he certainly rose to the moment.
7. Joe Haden (2017)
Prior to 2017, the Steelers had largely been devoid of star power in their secondary—names like Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell and William Gay likely ring a somber bell. In fact, their subpar defensive backfield likely cost them at least one Super Bowl victory.
When Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert realized that the Browns had cut franchise cornerstone Haden, they pounced like a lion to secure a star CB.
Subsequent to signing a three-year, $27 million deal, Haden began his Pittsburgh career in his former stomping grounds: First Energy Stadium. With all eyes on him, Haden excelled by posting a sack, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hit, and six total tackles. More specifically, Haden’s sack in his first game with the Steelers has been his only sack in the Steel City thus far and just the third of his career.
Haden not only vindicated that his former team was wrong to let him go; he also undoubtedly set the tone for several phenomenal years to come in Pittsburgh.
6. Lynn Swann (1974)
In the 1974 NFL Draft, the Steelers posted the greatest corps of rookies arguably ever assembled by taking Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.
While all four technically initiated their careers against the Baltimore Colts, only one truly flourished: Swann.
On just two catches, Swann tallied 94 receiving yards and a touchdown, even without Terry Bradshaw (who had been benched). Swann’s incredible efficiency catalyzed the Steelers to a 30-0 win in a year in which they ultimately captured their first ever Lombardi Trophy.
5. Minkah Fitzpatrick (2019)
Just before Week 3 of the 2019 season, Fitzpatrick was traded from the Dolphins to the Steelers in a very surprising move: A), it was the first time that the Steelers would not have had a first-round pick in over 50 years, and B) Pittsburgh had just lost Ben Roethlisberger to an elbow injury and seemed very likely to garner a top-five selection.
When the Steelers acquired Fitzpatrick, they expected to receive a ball-hawking, rangy, young safety with elite cover skills. Of course, though, numerous individuals figured they were “buying” in a hapless season.
In his Steelers debut against the San Francisco 49ers, Fitzpatrick quickly put such pessimistic rumors to bed. The former Alabama star looked entirely worthy of his trade haul by accruing an interception, quarterback hit and forced fumble.
The craziest part? Fitzpatrick had yet to have learned the Steelers’ playbook, had never played with his nascent teammates or coaches and had to fly across the country on a whim (his prior game with the Dolphins was in Foxborough, Massachusetts against New England).
Fitzpatrick’s dominant showing and formidable presence helped keep Pittsburgh in the game, as it lost by just four points in Mason Rudolph’s first ever start.
More importantly, though, Fitzpatrick’s outing blossomed thoughts of a new star safety—possibly the Steelers’ best since Troy Polamalu.
4. Le’Veon Bell (2013)
Coming out of the 2013 Draft, Bell was not guaranteed the starting running back spot, but he seemed poised to earn it—that is, until a foot injury halted his progress.
Although Bell’s opening professional snaps were delayed, they were undoubtedly worth the wait.
Against the Minnesota Vikings in a Week 4 London clash, Bell shone like the revered Crystal Palace en route to 57 rushing yards, 27 receiving yards and two scores.
The Steelers ended up falling 34-27 to Minnesota, but Bell established himself as a grounded two-way back—the next Steelers RB that would go on to earn multiple Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections.
3. DeAngelo Williams (2015)
Coming off of a marvelous 2014 season in which he was named FedEx Ground Player of the Year and a First-Team All-Pro, Bell was suspended for the initial two games of 2015. That created a serendipity for recent signee and former Panthers franchise back DeAngelo Williams.
Making his first start in nearly 10 months at age 32, Williams torched the Patriots for 127 rushing yards—his most since 2012—on 21 carries, good for over six YPC. Not only was Williams’ performance impressive considering that the Patriots finished ninth in Football Outsiders’ Rush DVOA that year, but he also matched Bell’s record-setting production.
Williams’ career in Pittsburgh is one that is often overlooked, possibly due to a long line of jarring comments and testy remarks. Yet overall, Williams usually performed above and beyond in place of Bell during his two years with the Steelers, and he certainly did so to begin 2015.
2. T.J. Watt (2017)
Clashing with franchise icon and one of the most Herculean football players alive for a starting job is no simple task, yet Watt did just that before 2017, securing his role over James Harrison.
In his first official NFL game, Watt wasted zero time harassing quarterbacks. The Wisconsin alum and #30 overall pick dominated the Browns, forcing two sacks, an interception, two tackles for loss and a pass deflection. Believe it or not, Watt is the last Steeler to post 2+ sacks and 1+ interceptions in a game and one of five players to accomplish the feat since 2017.
Granted, the Browns were historically bad that year—they became the second team to ever go 0-16—but Watt put the league on notice as early as one can.
1. Louis Lipps (1984)
If you read my prior article, you know at what a ludicrous rate Lipps scored for the Steelers, especially in his first two seasons. That mantra of early production is particularly relevant to his starting point in Pittsburgh.
To begin his career against the Chiefs in 1984, Lipps dazzled with a gaudy six catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns. Lipps’ receiving yards mark is the most ever by a Steeler in their debut game.
It’s also worth noting that Lipps was working with David Woodley, a quarterback who was also new to Pittsburgh and who hadn’t donned a uniform since Week 5 of the prior campaign.
Lipps’ rookie season was one to behold—his 11 total touchdowns are tied for a franchise record—and he also holds the honor of my vote for the best inaugural performance as a Steeler.