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Throwback Thursday: Role players found in draft helped define 1970's Steelers

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While they were blessed with nine Hall-of-Fame players and several others deserving a spot in Canton, the Steelers also possessed a strength in role players assembled through the draft throughout the 1970s.

Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

In many ways, the 1979 Steelers perfectly embodied what made the 70's Steelers great.

That team is still the only Super Bowl champion where each player was drafted by that team.

That stat, which will almost surely never be duplicated, helps illustrated the philosophy that existed within the Steelers brass: draft our type of player and person, develop them within our system, and put them in a position to succeed by learning, executing and perfecting their role on the team.

While the Steelers did posses nine Hall-of-Famers, there were many role players that helped make Pittsburgh the team of all decades. Those players played key roles in big games while meshing their talents with some of the players currently immortalized in Canton, Ohio.

Only five players from Chuck Noll's first team in 1969 would be around for the team's first Super Bowl title in January of 1974. Two of those players were linebacker Andy Russell and guard Sam Davis. While Davis helped platoon the offensive line along with Hall-of-Fame center Mike Webster throughout the 70's, Russell earned six of his seven Pro Bowl selections in the 70's while teamed with youngsters and future HOFers Jack Lambert and Jack Ham. Linemen Gerry Mullins and Ray Pinney, drafted in 1971 and '76 respectively, helped solidify the Steelers powerful offensive line that was the best in the NFL by the end of the decade.

While Lynn Swann and John Stallworth headlined the Steelers' receiving corps, Ron Shanklin and Frank Lewis paced Pittsburgh in receiving yards in '74, with the former leading the team with four touchdown catches. Also aiding the passing attack throughout the decade was an interesting trio at tight end. After catching the game-clinching touchdown pass in Super Bowl IX, Larry Brown eventually bulked up, swapped jersey number 87 for 79, and started at right tackle during the Steelers last two Super Bowl victories in the decade.

One of the key role players on those 70's teams was tight end Randy Grossman, who was drated out of Temple in 1974. Despite only catching 24 passes in his first two years, Grossman caught the Steelers first touchdown in the Steelers 21-17 win over the Cowboys in Super Bowl X. Two years later, after 1976 dratee Bennie Cunningham was lost for the season after six games, Grossman assumed the role of starter and enjoyed his finest season as a pro, catching  37 passes for 448 yards. Grossman caught nine more passes during the '78 playoffs that included two pivotal receptions in Super Bowl XIII. After his third and eight reception set up Stallworth's touchdown on the game's opening drive, Grossman made another crucial catch on third and nine in the fourth quarter on a drive that ended with Franco Harris' 22-yard touchdown run to give the Steelers a 28-17 lead on their way to a 35-31 victory.

While Franco and running back Rocky Bleier were the two studs in Steelers backfield, they got an added boost with the addition of Sydney Thorton, who was drafted out of NW State (Louisiana) in 1979. Thorton added a new dimension in the Steelers explosive offense in 1979, as he rushed for 585 yards while leading the squad with a 5.0 yards per carry average. He also pulled down 16 catches for 231 yards while scoring 10 total touchdowns.

There were many key role players on the defensive side of the ball. The Steel Curtain comprised of Joe Greene, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and Ernie Holmes were aided on the defensive line by John Banaszak, Steve Furness and Gary Dunn, who each added their own niche to the D-line. Drafted in 1975, Banaszak started 31 of 32 games in the Steelers last two Super Bowl championship teams in the 70's. Banaszak shined in Super Bowl XIII, recovering an early fumble that led to the Steelers first touchdown. He then sacked Roger Staubach late in Pittsburgh's win that solidified their place as the team of the decade.

While the defensive line had the president of "The Banaszak Bunch", the linebackers had Dirt. Dennis "Dirt" Winston. Drafted in 1977, Winston always seemed to have a knack for ending up with the football. In 1979, Winston started 10 games at linebacker and intercepted three passes while recovering three fumbles. One year earlier, Winston recovered Randy White's pivotal fumble late in Super Bowl XIII. The recovered fumble led to Terry Bradshaw's back-breaking touchdown pass to Swann on the very next play. Also drafted in 1977 was fellow linebacker Robin Cole, who started 16 games in '78 and '79 and played 11 seasons with the Steelers, earning a Pro Bowl selection in 1984.

The secondary, blessed with perennial starters Mike Wagner, Donnie Shell and Hall-of-Famer Mel Bount, also possessed several strong role players. J.T. Thomas, who was drafted in 1973, picked off five passes in 1974 and was named to the Pro Bowl in '76.

Not many rookies could have started on the Steelers defense as a in the 70's, but that's exactly what cornerback Ron Johnson did. Johnson started 16 games in '78, picking off four passes while helping Blount harass Dallas receivers Drew Pearson and Tony Hill in Super Bowl XIII. Johnson's teammate, Tony Dungy, was solid defensive back long before he was a Super Bowl wining coach. Dungy led the Steelers with six interceptions in 1978 and forced White's fumble that Winston recovered in Super Bowl XIII. Four years earlier, it was Glen Edward's devastating hit on Vikings receiver John Gilliam in Super Bowl IX would become one of the plays that defined the 70's Steelers defense. Edwards earned consecutive Pro Bowl trips in '75 and '76 and clinched Super Bowl X by intercepting Staubach's Hail Mary, end zone pass on the game's final play.

Many of the Steelers players listed above may not be as remembered as the team's Hall-of-Fame players, but they too deserve recognition for their efforts in making the Steelers the dynasty what it was. It also goes to show how important it is to draft players that excel in whatever role they are called upon to help a team win championships.