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Steelers All Time All Rookie Team: Part 7 Linebackers

Part 7: The Linebackers

none of these guys are rookies in this shot, but they’re all on the list below

Now for part 7 of the Steelers All-Time All-Rookie team, in which we talk about the linebackers. The first six 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/Steagles/Card-Pitt.

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.

(Side note: I can’t figure out how to let everyone vote on multiple players, so the poll is just for the top rookie linebacker, I guess. Oh well.)

For past essays:

Part 1: Quarterbacks
Part 2: Running Backs
Part 3: Wide Receivers
Part 4: Tight Ends
Part 5: Offensive Line
Part 6: Defensive Line

And now, on to the linebackers.


Linebackers

Greg Lloyd & James Harrison: two of the best to ever play the position. And yet, neither made the All Rookie squad.

The Steelers have long been thought of as a linebacker factory. And this list is an impressive list. But there are a lot of massively talented players who came through town, but won’t appear below. Some will be omitted because they began their careers elsewhere, like Kevin Greene or James Farrior, who were originally with the Rams and Jets, respectively. A few were Steelers who got playing time, but just didn’t have the game figured out right away, such as Chad Brown, Bud Dupree, or Ryan Shazier. But mostly, players who didn’t make the cut were stuck behind great players ahead of them. That’s the case for Gregg Lloyd and James Harrison, pictured above. But it’s also what held back Robin Cole, David Little, Bryan Hinkle, Hardy Nickerson, Levon Kirkland, Earl Holmes, Joey Porter, Jason Gilden, Larry Foote, and Lawrence Timmons. (Man, what a list! And that’s the guys who DIDN’T make the cut...)

Quick programming note: just like the previous article, on defensive linemen, I’ve found that linebackers are hard to put into secure positions. In a 4-3 alignment (the defense the team ran in the 1970s) an OLB plays a lot like a 3-4 ILB — covering downfield, tackling runners, and only rarely blitzing. Meanwhile, in a 3-4 (like the team has run since the mid-80s), an OLB is an edge rusher at core. I’m going to omit positions and just take four linebackers as starters; I’ll let the coaches figure out where to line them up.

Let’s get to it.


Starters:

Jack Lambert (1974)

Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have never really been a “sit on your helmet” team, but no one was going to tell Jack Lambert what to do.

Started all 14 games, and 3 postseason, on NFL’s #1 defense
Only rookie starter on Steelers first Super Bowl Winner
Recorded two interceptions and a fumble recovery
2.0 sacks (unofficial)
NFL’s All-Rookie Team
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

The Steelers 1974 draft was the best any team has ever conducted in any sport. But of the five Hall of Famers they acquired that day, Lambert is the only one who was a star from day 1. The NFL’s defensive rookie of the year in 1974, Jack Lambert was the keystone player that made the 70s Steelers defense unstoppable.

To start at MLB as a rookie was particularly difficult, since the MLB called the defensive signals. To stick a gangly and toothless Kent State rookie in that role, alongside a bunch of young Pro Bowlers, must have seemed insane. But Lambert immediately became a team leader and a force of nastiness and intimidation rivaled only by his own teammate, Joe Greene.

The Steelers were a team on the rise in 1974, but they’d only won one playoff game in team history when Lambert was drafted – the divinely enhanced Immaculate Reception game two years prior. Since Franco Harris crossed the goal line in that contest, the team had gone 0-2 in the playoffs. Once Lambert was stuck in at MLB, they won their next seven playoff contests, including two Super Bowls. Lambert’s rookie season, they’d humiliated the Minnesota Vikings, holding Fran Tarkenton and company to 107 yards of total offense and pitching a Super Bowl shutout (the Vikings one score came on a blocked punt, after which the Steelers blocked the extra point).


Kendrell Bell (2001)

Steelers v Titans X
What a crime Kendrell couldn’t keep healthy. He should’ve been a great one. Look at those numbers...

Started all 16 games, and 2 postseason, on NFL’s #1 defense
9.0 sacks, 23 tackles for loss (#2 in NFL in TFL; #10 all-time)
Pro Bowl, 2nd team All Pro
NFL All-Rookie Team
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

The NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2001, Kendrell Bell was one of the lynch-pin players on the powerful ’01 defense that led the league in numerous categories. He recorded nine sacks as a rookie (from the inside position!) and made a name for himself as a big hitter and quick pursuer.

It was easy to imagine Bell as the NFL’s next great defensive star in 2001 — plug him in between James Farrior and Joey Porter, and watch out. (Hell, he’d have still been under 30 on that great 2008 defense — Harrison and Woodley off the edges; Bell, Farrior, and Timmons in the middle... That should have been the best linebacking crew of all time.)

But ‘01 was the high point in his career. Bell’s time in Pittsburgh was truncated after injuries (including a frustrating high ankle sprain) kept him off the field too much, but as a rookie, he was as good as anyone.


T.J. Watt (2017)

NFL: AUG 20 Preseason - Falcons at Steelers
T.J. Watt doesn’t even need a helmet to win this fight.
Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Started 15 games
Recorded 7.0 sacks, 7 passes defensed, 10 TFL, 13 QB hits, 1 interception
Started playoff games as well (1 pass defensed, 2 QB hits)
NFL All-Rookie Team

TJ Watt came to the Steelers with a famous pedigree, a weird positional change (he started his college career as a tight end), only one full season as a starter at Wisconsin, and a lot of questions. It’s hard to remember today, but there were plenty who criticized Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for selecting Watt in the first round back in 2017, thinking they’d gotten swept up in the mystique of his older brother (and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year) J.J. Watt. No one wonders that anymore.

As a rookie, Watt started 15 games, plus a playoff contest, finishing in the top five on the team in sacks, QB hits, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, interceptions, passes defensed, and overall tackles. And this was his worst year as a Steeler. Yikes.

He’s gotten shafted the last two years out of the DPOY award (last year especially), but he earned All Rookie status in ‘17, with plenty of room to spare.


Myron Pottios (1961)

This looks less like a killer MLB and more like a young dad checking in on his toddler at the park.

Started all 14 games as rookie
Recorded two interceptions and a fumble recovery
4.0 sacks (unofficial)
Pro Bowler as rookie

I’ll be honest: before researching this piece, I’d never heard of Mo Pottios. Which is a shame, because he looks to have been one hell of a linebacker in black and gold. He played a dozen years in the NFL, starting on the Washington team that lost to the undefeated ‘72 Dolphins in Super Bowl VII. But his best years were in Pittsburgh, where he was a Pro Bowler in three out of four seasons played (he missed another with injury), and was an All Pro in 1963.

As a rookie in 1961, Pottios was one of five MLB’s to be named to a Pro Bowl roster. The other four are all in the Hall of Fame. Moreover, he was one of only three rookies named to the squad — one of the others was Mike Ditka. In other words, this was good company. Injuries were the only thing that could slow Mo down, as he missed his entire second season, and half of his fourth and fifth (though he still made the Pro Bowl in year 4, despite only playing in seven games).


Backups:

Devin Bush (2019)

NFL Draft
I’m sure I sound old saying this, but Devin Bush looks so much better without that hair-tail he wore for a while.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Played 16 games as rookie, started 15
Recovered 4 fumbles (#2 in NFL), returning 1 for touchdown (#4 in NFL)
Also 2 interceptions, 1.0 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, 4 passes defensed, 2 QB hits
Led Steelers with 109 tackles
AFC Defensive Player of the Week (Wk 6)
NFL All-Rookie Team

There are high hopes for Devin Bush in 2021, and they’re mostly based off of his excellent rookie season. After the Steelers shocked the NFL by trading up to grab one of “the Devins” in the 2019 draft, Bush rewarded them by leading the team in tackles and recording six takeaways, including one fumble returned for a touchdown against the Chargers on a nationally televised Sunday night game that was the first of four straight wins (and seven out of eight) for the most surprising playoff contender in football. Bush’s touchdown was the margin of victory in that game.

An ACL injury cut his 2020 season short after only five weeks, but the Devin Bush we all saw in 2019 was a star in the making.


Jerry Olsavsky (1989)

Do you really need a stat line on this card, Score?

Played in all 16 games, started 8
Recorded 41 tackles, 1.0 sacks
Helped Steelers to one of the unlikeliest playoff runs ever
NFL All-Rookie Team

The Steelers current ILB coach, Jerry Olsavsky, was also one of their more unheralded players from a few years back. A local kid (born in Youngstown, OH, and graduated from Pitt), Olsavsky was not slated to be a starter, but found his way onto the field over and over. (He even started both playoff wins in 1995 for injured Chad Brown, on the way to Super Bowl XXX.)

As a rookie, Olsavsky didn’t light up the stat board, but he started eight games, and played in all 16 on the absurd 1989 Steelers team. This is the squad that began their season by losing 51-0 at home to Cleveland, then followed it up with a 41-10 loss at Cincinnati, and somehow came back to not just sneak into the playoffs, but to knock off the Oilers in Houston, and very nearly unseat John Elway at Mile High. I could go on all day about that team (it’s my favorite ever), but Jerry Olsavsky seems like one of the best avatars for those guys — a no-name with no expectations, who was never flashy and worked incredibly hard, and one day you looked up and thought, “wow, you know, that guy’s pretty good...”


Jack Ham (1970)

Jack Ham - Pittsburgh Steelers - File Photos
Jack Ham looks like 20 years younger without his beard.

Played in all 14 games, started 13
Recorded two interceptions and a fumble recovery

Jack Ham is probably the biggest case-in-point for how the 3-4 and 4-3 can’t be judged the same. As a 4-3 OLB, Ham was a Defensive Player of the Year, a six time All Pro, eight time Pro Bowler, and four time champ. There’s a case to be made that Ham was the best outside backer in NFL history (Pro Football Reference ranks him 3rd, behind Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Brooks). But there aren’t glamor stats, like sacks, that a 4-3 OLB accumulates. Taylor had 142 of those; Ham had 25.5.

In any case, Ham started 13 games for the middling 6-8 Steelers in 1971. That defense was starting to take shape, but hadn’t gotten there yet (they finished 17th out of 26 teams in yards, and 18th in points). The following year, Jack Ham would record an absurd seven(!) interceptions (a number which would have led the leage in five of the last ten years), and the Steelers would win their first playoff game in franchise history. Ham didn’t even make the Pro Bowl that year, somehow.


Andy Russell (1963)

Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s a crime there was never a movie about Andy Russell. Burt Reynolds was born to play this role.
Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

Played in all 14 games as rookie, started 13
(Missed his entire 2nd and 3rd seasons for military service)
Recorded three interceptions, 2.0 sacks, and a fumble recovery

Andy Russell is one of only two players that made it from the godawful mid-60s Steelers rosters into the Super Bowls (Ray Mansfield is the other). A 16th round draft pick in 1963, you wouldn’t have bet on him to eventually go to seven Pro Bowls and pick up two rings — especially not after he missed two whole seasons for military service. But here we are.

Russell recorded four takeaways in his rookie season (lined up next to Mo Pottios) for the 7-4-3 Steelers. (Wait, really? Three ties?) Anyway, one wonders what kind of career he could have had without leaving for the war, but Russell famously let Chuck Noll coach him up mid-way through his career (despite being a Pro Bowler already on a dreadful squad). That’s the kind of work ethic that makes a promising start into an overachieving career.


Also considered:

LaMarr Woodley (2007)

Green Bay Packers v Pittsburgh Steelers
Lamarr Woodley tries to discreetly pull off his jersey when he realizes he’s wearing Joey Porter’s number by mistake.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Played in 13 games as rookie
Recorded 4.0 sacks, plus 2.0 in playoff game
3 tackles for loss, 7 QB hits

LaMarr Woodley’s rookie season was largely uneventful, but I’ve included him here for the way he ended it. With all eyes on 1st round draft pick, Lawrence Timmons, Woodley quietly played in 13 games, slowly getting better and better. In the season’s final two weeks, he recorded four QB hits and a sack, then added three more QB hits, two tackles for loss, and two sacks in the playoff loss to Jacksonville. It was no surprise when Mike Tomlin moved on from Clark Haggans and promoted Woodley in year 2, and the 2008 defense might have been the best of the era — at least in part because of him.

As an epilogue, Woodley recorded at least two sacks in each of his first four(!) playoff games, including Super Bowl XLIII, which he polished off with a game-sealing strip sack of Hall of Famer Kurt Warner.


Alex Highsmith (2020)

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals
Are those gloves padded? Man, look at the Lambert picture above — all they used to do was stuff foam rubber in your belt. Now padded knuckles? Crazy.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Played in all 16 games, started 5
Recorded 1 interception, 2.0 sacks, 5 TFL, 6 QB hits

Alex Highsmith didn’t quite do enough to land on the All Rookie squad, but he showed an impressive potential and poise when pressed into playing time after Bud Dupree’s unfortunate injury. He’s smart enough to adjust mid-game (such as his adjustment interception against Lamarr Jackson), and athletic enough to lead the nation in tackles for loss at Memphis. Will the sophomore-leap happen for him? Hopefully. His rookie year wasn’t bad, though, either.


Frank Sinkovitz (1947)

I don’t think Frank Sinkovitz played center, so this photo is just confusing.

Played in 9 games as rookie
Recorded 3 interceptions, returning one 47 yards for touchdown
#2 on team in interceptions

I love these old-school guys. Frank Sinkovitz didn’t start, but played a significant role on the Steelers first ever post-season team. One of fifteen(!) rookies on that squad (out of only 35 players), Sinkovitz did most of his damage at linebacker, picking off three passes and taking one back to the house — his only NFL touchdown.

The 1947 Steelers tied for lead of the NFL’s Eastern Division, with a franchise best 8-4 record. Back then, there were only two divisions, and the champs from each met in the NFL Championship Game. One post-season round; no playoffs. But in ‘47, the Steelers and Eagles had tied. Apparently the NFL lacked the sophisticated tie-breaking formulas of the modern game, so they just played one more to settle it. At Forbes Field, Greasy Neale’s Eagles beat Jock Sutherland’s Steelers 21-0 in the Battle of Great Coach Names. The Steelers wouldn’t see the post season again until 1972.

Because of the weird unscheduled tie-break elements of that game, I usually don’t even consider this a “playoff” game, to be honest. I prefer the Immaculate Reception game as the Steelers first playoff contest.


Jerry Shipkey (1948)

This is probably the most terrifying photo I’ve posted in this whole series. I know I’d get the hell out of this guy’s way.

Played in all 12 games as rookie, started 4
Recorded three fumble recoveries
Also played fullback, rushing for 8 touchdowns (#2 in NFL)

Jerry Shipkey missed out on that 1947 game, and landed on the 4-8 Steelers of the following season. A two-way player (as most undoubtedly were back then) he was a decent linebacker and fullback — three takeaways and eight touchdowns is a good rookie stat line in 16 games, much less 12. Shipkey was eventually a two-time All Pro in the 1950s. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get a sense of his rookie season from the information I have at my disposal. One thing I’ll say: he has the best portrait of anyone on this list.


Tony Compagno (1946)

Tony Compagno: the original inspiration for Blutarsky in Animal House.

Played in 10 games as rookie, starting 6
Recorded 1 one interceptions, 5 fumble recoveries (#4 in NFL)
Also played fullback

Tony Compagno is one of those mysteries of the NFL’s early years. He was drafted in 1943 by the “Phil/Pitt Steagles,” but didn’t play until 1946 (I assume he was in the war in the meantime time). Then as a rookie, he recorded six takeaways on defense, and 318 yards of total offense. Not bad. He also fumbled seven times, but that was on offense, so it doesn’t count against him here.

His second season — the aforementioned “tie-breaker” year, Compagno snagged four picks and returned them for a gawdy 163 yards and two touchdowns. In year three, he went bigger, making seven picks for a ridiculous 179 yards in returns. Then he just retired. What?


John Reger (1955)

What is this guy, 14?

Played in 12 games, starting 10
Recorded 2 interceptions, and 5 fumble recoveries (#3 in NFL)

The 1955 Steelers were another bad team (lots of those back then), but John Reger was a bright spot. As a rookie, Reger recorded an impressive seven takeaways, and started ten ballgames, while going both ways as a guard and linebacker. He would eventually make three Pro Bowls over a 12 year career, but his first season would prove to be his biggest in terms of takeaways.

Once again, there’s only so far I can go without tackles or sacks or other stats to dig into. But seven takeaways were hard to not at least consider.


Poll

Linebackers

This poll is closed

  • 74%
    Jack Lambert (1974)
    (300 votes)
  • 8%
    Kendrell Bell (2001)
    (33 votes)
  • 4%
    T.J. Watt (2017)
    (17 votes)
  • 0%
    Mo Pottios (1961)
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Devin Bush (2019)
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Jerry Olsavky (1989)
    (2 votes)
  • 9%
    Jack Ham (1971)
    (37 votes)
  • 1%
    Andy Russell (1963)
    (5 votes)
  • 0%
    Other
    (3 votes)
401 votes total Vote Now

Next up, we’ll hit the secondary...