And, after a haitus, we’re back with part 6 of the Steelers All-Time All-Rookie team, in which we talk about the defensive line. The first five essays are linked below, but for those who missed them, here’s how it works: I’ll include an introduction to account for some players you may expect to see, but who didn’t make the cut. Then I’ll list starters, backups, and others worth consideration — followed with a poll for Steelers Nation to weigh in.
The Ground Rules:
1 — I’m looking at the entire history of the Steelers/”Pirates.”
2 — The player must have begun his career with Pittsburgh.
3 — Only the rookie year will factor in; a great career is unnecessary.
4 — The poll and the comments section are open — have at it.
For past essays:
And now, with the offense laid out, it’s time to switch sides and look at the Steelers’ traditional bread-winning unit: the defense.
Let me start with a quick programming note: I decided not to break down the D-Line by position because the 4-3 game that the team played in the 1970s, and the 3-4 style they’ve played since the mid-80s, ask such different things of their position groups. A 4-3 defensive tackle, for example, is a lot more like a 3-4 defensive end. This is one reason you sometimes see Cam Heyward listed as a DT when we know he’s a 3-4 end. Meanwhile, a 3-4 NT simply doesn’t have an equivalent in a 4-3 alignment. So instead, I’ll put four linemen on the field, and not worry about their positions.
Now then, as for the list itself, it will be populated by some of the most iconic players in NFL history (much less Steelers lore). But not all of them. For example, legendary DT, Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, who recently emerged as the unofficial single-season sack leader of the Steelers, began his career with the Rams. As did 80s and 90s starter Donald Evans. Ray Seals may have started in Super Bowl XXX, but he started his career in Tampa Bay. He’s not here.
The homegrown talent didn’t always sprout right away either. L.C. Greenwood, John Banaszak, Keith Willis, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, and Cam Heyward, combined for 11 Super Bowl rings and 12 Pro Bowls, but they amassed zero starts as rookies. Smith is the only one to even become a regular starter in his sophomore season. Ernie Holmes and Orpheus Roye started one game each as a rookies — not enough to merit inclusion here. I did have to think about Stephon Tuitt and Joel Steed, each of whom started four games in their opening seasons. But neither did enough to surpass the guys who did make the cut.
For what it’s worth, “games started” wasn’t the chief criteria for this list, but given how few stats were kept in the classic years, playing time was a useful yard stick. In any case, let’s get to the squad:
Ernie Stautner (1955)
Started all 12 games as rookie
Recorded two fumble recoveries
Tied for league lead with one safety
Anchored NFL’s #4 defense in yards and points
The first jersey number retired by the Steelers organization was Stautner’s #70. He largely played DT back in the day (though was sometimes listed as a DE), but was a terror no matter where he lined up.
As a rookie, Stautner started every game on a good defense — #4 in points, #4 in yards, #2 in passing, and #9 in rushing. (Of course, that’s #9 out of 16.) With very few defensive stats kept in those days, there’s a little bit of projection here, but the 1950 Steelers had only one defensive Pro Bowler, and started QB Jim Finks at CB (but not QB), so I’m guessing that quality starters like Stautner were better than the numbers indicate.
“Mean” Joe Greene (1969)
Started all 14 games as rookie
9.5 sacks (unofficially)
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year
Changed entire culture of the organization
The second (out of two) jersey number retired by the Steelers is Joe Greene’s #75. The NFL didn’t keep stats in the 60s and 70s the way they do now — such as tackles for loss or quarterback hits — which is a real shame. I have a feeling Greene’s numbers would look otherworldly (such as his unofficial team record 5 sacks against Houston in 1972 – absurd for an interior lineman).
Greene was Chuck Noll’s first ever draft pick, and by all accounts he changed the culture in Pittsburgh. He was an NFL All Rookie performer and a Pro Bowler, despite starting on a 1-13 loser.
We all know Mean Joe, so I won’t add much, but I’m going to take this opportunity to retell a story I once heard 1970s Broncos Pro Bowl linebacker (and ESPN analyst) Tom Jackson tell about Greene. I don’t recall the situation, but the Broncos had the ball, and there was a call on the field that was favorable to the Steelers. Jackson and the Broncos defense (and coaching staff, and backups), erupted on the sidelines. Greene, on the field, whipped his head around and fired a “shut up” glare at the Denver bench. As Jackson put it, “we all instinctively took a step backward — the whole sideline — as though Joe Greene was going go to come over and beat us all up. That’s how intimidating he was.”
Rod Woodson had a similar story from his rookie season, when Greene was the D-Line coach. Woodson took his first interception back to the house, and showboated across the goal line, waving the ball in the trailing receiver’s face. Trotting through the Steelers bench area, he was suddenly snagged by Greene, who grabbed his jersey, looked him in the eye, and said, “we don’t do that here.” As Woodson told the story, “I said, ‘yes sir.’ And I never did it again in 17 years.” I love that stuff.
Dwight White (1971)
Started all 14 games as rookie
One fumble recovery
Helped anchor NFL’s #4 rush defense (#3 in YPC)
9 sacks (unoffically) as rookie
Dwight White is something of a forgotten Steel-Curtain member — third in line along that front four, behind Greene and L.C. Greenwood. But he was the real deal from day 1, recording a whopping nine sacks as a rookie (unoffical), and starting every game on a rising team.
White is probably most famous for climbing out of a hospital bed the morning of Super Bowl IX to record the only points of the game’s first half — a safety, for the Steelers 2-0 lead over the Vikings. Or for his three sacks against Roger Staubach in Super Bowl X. But even as a rookie “Mad Dog” earned his bones — exhausting offensive linemen with his intensity and motor, and frustrating them with his relentless mouth.
Casey Hampton (2001)
Played in 16 games; started 11
One fumble recovery, one sack, four tackles for loss
Anchored league’s #1 defense in rushing yards and TDs
Defense also #3 in points, #1 in yards, #1 in first downs, #4 in passing yards
Hampton was probably the best pure nose tackle in the Steelers history. He started 11 games as a rookie and immediately solidified the middle of the Steelers defensive front. The team led the league in rush defense that year. (It’s worth noticing that the much celebrated 2000 Ravens roster was still intact at the time.)
It’s hard to quantify a nose tackle’s prowess — “disrupting the hole” or “forcing a double-team” aren’t stats anyone’s keeping, as far as I know — but Hampton was an instant difference-maker, and started all three Super Bowls of this era.
George Nicksich (1950)
Started all 12 games as rookie
Recorded three interceptions and three fumble recoveries from interior D-Line
Anchored #4 defense (in yards and points), that finished #2 in passing D
George Nicksich is one of those strange cases from the mid-century. He played “Middle Guard” on defense, which appears to be nose tackle on a five man front. (The Steelers look like they played a 5-2-4 defensive formation in 1950. Ernie Stautner was LDT, but played inside a DE and outside of Nicksich’s MG spot.) He also only played one season, retiring at age 23. And yet, six takeaways from a nose position is no joke. He also played line at 6’0 and 225lbs. What?
Nicksich and Stautner were both rookies in 1950, and RDT Darrell Hogan was in his second year. That’s an exciting, young D line. Then Nicksich just disappears. Crazy.
Keith Gary (1983)
Played in 16 games; started 2 (plus a playoff game)
Recorded 7.5 sacks
Recovered two fumbles
Keith Gary started three games in 1983, and his name isn’t well known among Steelers faithful. In fact, he sat most of the year behind guys whose names you only know because they sound like other people — John Goodman and Tom Beasly (not Bosley, unfortunately). So how is he in consideration for the All-Rookie team? Because as a reserve 3-4 defensive end, Gary somehow recorded 7.5 sacks as a rookie – otherwise known as a half-sack more than TJ Watt recorded in his rookie campaign, and more than Joey Porter, Lamarr Woodley, Jason Gilden, and Bud Dupree combined for as rookies, all of them blitzing OLBs. Maybe that makes it more reasonable to call Gary a reserve pass rusher to come in off the bench, but I’m willing to picture him lining up at the starting gun with these numbers.
Chris Hoke (2004)
Played in 14 games; started 10
One sack, four tackles for loss
Also started two playoff games (1.0 sacks, 1 TFL)
Anchored NFL’s #1 defense in points, yards, and rushing yards (#4 in passing)
Hoke’s best season was his rookie campaign. When Pro Bowler Casey Hampton got injured and had to miss 10 games, Hoke stepped right in, and the Steelers didn’t miss a beat. They led the league in total defense that season, as well as rushing defense, on their way to a 15-1 regular season. Hoke is a personal favorite of mine for the way he shrugged his shoulders and went right back to the bench once Hampton returned, gathering two Super Bowl rings as the most valuable backup NT I’ve ever heard of.
I didn’t realize this had been his rookie year until researching this article. Wow.
Javon Hargrave (2016)
Played in 15 games; started 13
One fumble recovery (for a TD), 2.0 sacks, five tackles for loss
Started three playoff games (1.0 sacks, three tackles for loss)
Javon Hargrave’s tenure at NT signaled a shift in defensive ideology in Pittsburgh. Not a classic run-clogging nose man, like Hampton or Hoke, Hargrave was instead an effective pass rusher. That’s strange for an interior lineman in a 3-4 alignment. J-Wobble was capable of sliding over to DE (as he did for most of 2019), and strong enough that he priced himself right out of Pittsburgh two years ago.
Brentson Buckner (1994)
5 starts on AFC runner-up
Started both playoff games
2.0 more sacks in playoffs
Brentson Buckner didn’t quite do enough to justify his spot on the All Rookie roster, but starting two playoff games, and recording two sacks in those contests, is impressive. In Buckner’s case, that strong finish didn’t really portend a strong career (the way, say, Lamarr Woodley’s rookie playoff was a harbinger of things to come). But he was a valuable rotation guy as a rookie, and played best when it mattered most.
All Rookie Defensive Line
This poll is closed