The recent retirement of both Ikey Taylor and Troy Polamalu bring an end to an era where both players were Pittsburgh Steelers for the entirety of their NFL careers. During their tenure in Pittsburgh, both players were pillars in the Steelers' secondary and part of a defensive nucleus that would yield the least amount of points in the NFL in four seasons.
However it begs the question, where do they stand in the Steelers' history of great defensive backs?
The Steelers of the 1970's who won four Super Bowls in six seasons featured several defensive backs who could be considered great players, but only one player from the secondaries of that era is currently in the Hall of Fame Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Still there are other players from that era who deserve recognition for their contributions to an era of dominance for Steelers football.
Since then, other players have provided exceptional play over the years in different Steelers' secondaries, Taylor and Polamalu among them. But who's the best?
The first of the candidates played before the Super Bowl era, but is the most recent to be enshrined in Canton; can you guess who that is?
1. Jack Butler.
Butler only played nine seasons in the NFL, all of which were with the Steelers, but he somehow was able to total 52 interceptions in that time. Today, that puts him tied for 26th on the all-time interceptions list, tied with the likes of Champ Bailey and Mel Renfro. The only player who was able to make that many interceptions in a shorter period of time was Bobby Dillon for the Green Bay Packers. I'm not going to pretend that in my 26 years of living that I spent any moment of it going to look for Butler highlights and can say how great he was, but that stat alone is extremely impressive. He has the second most interceptions in the franchise's history, and as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, deserves a mention.
2. Mel Blount.
Part of one of the greatest draft classes the Steelers have ever had, Blount was selected by the Steelers in 1970 and played in Pittsburgh for his entire career. He played in each of the four Super Bowl victories of the 1970's, and recorded 11 interceptions in 1975 as the team was on the path to Super Bowl X. Unlike Butler, Blount is a player who I've seen plenty of game footage of (thanks Dad). He has the most interceptions as a Steeler in franchise history, but the only Steeler who has more interceptions in their NFL career is Rod Woodson. Not only that, but Blount's physicality as a defender was so much that the NFL had to create a new rule in 1978 that prohibited defensive players from making contact with receivers after they have advanced five yards past the line of scrimmage in order to slow him down. Today that rule is commonly referred to as the "Mel Blount" rule. When you're so good at your job that the league has to legislate the game to slow you down, that speaks volumes. On top of that, to this day, Rod Woodson argues that the greatest NFL cornerback of all-time was Mel Blount.
3. Glen Edwards.
Edwards was only on the first two Super Bowl champion teams of the 1970's, but he was a significant contributor to each one. His 25 of his 39 career interceptions came with his time in Pittsburgh. Two of his most memorable moments came in both the Super Bowls he played in, where he played a role in a redzone turnover. In Super Bowl IX Edwards delivered a huge hit to receiver John Gilliam at the 5 yard line, stopping the Minnesota Vikings' drive that had started from their own 20. The hit sent the ball flying into the air, setting up an easy interception for Blount, and securing a halftime lead for Pittsburgh. The next season, Edwards stepped up to clinch a Super Bowl victory. After turning the ball over on downs, the Steelers had to stop the Dallas Cowboys from scoring a last-minute touchdown to win back-to-back championships. Edwards intercepted Roger Staubach in the endzone to win the game.
4. Mike Wagner.
Wagner was the only other defensive back who was a starter throughout all four of the Super Bowl wins of the 70's next to Blount. He recorded 36 interceptions, sixth most of players who made interceptions as Steelers, and was a consistent player throughout the 70's. He was also a Super Bowl X hero when he made a crucial interception of Roger Staubach that setup the Steelers in the redzone, and eventually take the lead.
5. Donnie Shell.
Shell was the replacement for Edwards once he left for San Diego. Coming in with the franchise's greatest draft class in 1974 as an undrafted free agent, Shell became a force in Pittsburgh. He played the entirety of his 14 year career in Pittsburgh and recorded 51 interceptions. Shell's reputation as a heavy hitter on defense added to the identity of the Steelers defense; especially when he broke Earl Campbell's ribs in a 1979 matchup. He has the third most interceptions as a Steeler, and ranks 32nd all-time in the NFL.
6. Dwayne Woodruff
The Honorable Judge Woodruff is a well respected judge in Pennsylvania now, but in his day he also was a feared cornerback. His 37 interceptions with the Steelers put him at fifth most of any player in their career in Pittsburgh. He got a Super Bowl ring in his rookie year when the Steelers won Super Bowl XIV. Though he came in on the tail-end of the Super Bowl era, he was a good player that the Steelers had throughout the 80's.
7. Rod Woodson.
Woodson is third on the NFL's all-time interceptions list with his career with 71, third on the NFL's non-offensive touchdowns with 17, and third with interceptions as a Steeler with 38. Woodson may be the best pure athlete Pittsburgh ever had in their secondary. His reputation speaks for itself as he was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame. Though he won his Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens, Woodson is a beloved Steeler who is often respected as one of the best to ever play the game. After he left the Steelers he became a dangerous safety and continued to make plays, but his contributions as a Steeler were stellar; including when he tore his ACL, then recovered in time for Super Bowl XXX to cover Michael Irvin.
8. Carnell Lake.
Lake didn't put up a lot of interceptions, but he was a great Steeler for many years. Between 1989 and 1998, Lake would flip between strong safety and different corneback positions as the team needed him. His most impressive switch was in 1995 when he switched from safety to replace Rod Woodson after an ACL injury sidelined him for most of the season.
9. Ike Taylor.
Taylor will forever be remembered for dropping interceptions, but as a cover-corner he was a lockdown player for many years. After spending two years as a backup, he became a prominent starter for the Steelers in 2005 on their way to a Super Bowl victory, and recorded an interception in both the AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos and against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. What will probably be forgotten over time by those who didn't watch Taylor closely over the years was how good he was in coverage during his prime. He could shutdown some of the league's best receivers; most notably when in 2009 Chad Johnson (now Ochocinco) had a "checklist" of cornerbacks in the NFL which he had burned for big numbers and proclaimed he would make Ike Taylor "kiss the baby." Though the Steelers lost 12-18, Johnson was held to 2 catches for 29 yards that game, and was consistently covered well by Taylor throughout his career.
10. Troy Polamalu.
Last but not least is one the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and two-time Super Bowl champion. Polamalu is the embodiment of the argument that stats cannot define a career. 32 interceptions throughout his career puts him in the top 10 of the all-time Steelers with interceptions list, but Polamalu did so much more. His natural abilities made him unpredictable in his prime, terrorizing quarterbacks and offenses with his speed, instincts and ridiculous playmaking abilities. He has made some of the most exciting plays in the history of Heinz Field with fingertip interceptions, interceptions returned for touchdowns, big hits, and timing the snap of the ball perfectly so that he could sack the quarterback right as the play started. Polamalu will be bound for Canton, but how does his legacy stack up with the other defensive backs?
There are other defensive backs in the Steelers' history that deserve honorable mentions, but this list was pretty comprehensive of the team's elite players in the secondary. Do you have other defensive backs who were your favorite? If you feel anyone was missed, bring them up in the comments! But please, no Chad Scott's, Ricardo Coclough's or Scott Shields; we're better than that.