Legendary Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker and 1988 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Jack Ham was in Pittsburgh Wednesday to promote Comcast XFinity's new X1 Sports App -- a tool that provides pregame information, live stats and post-game analysis for multiple sports leagues alongside games on the same screen -- and he took a few minutes to speak with me on the eve of the 2015 NFL season.
Among his many accolades are eight Pro Bowl selections, eight All-Pro selections, and a selection to the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. He is generally regarded as one of the top five linebackers to have played the game, and one of the top 100 players of all time, regardless of position. Ham was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
Known during his playing days as "dobrý šunka" -- pronounced "Dobra Shunka" and Slovak for "good ham" -- the Johnstown native played college ball at Penn State University, where he is currently a gameday analyst for the Penn State Radio Network.
While we primarily discussed the defensive side of the ball -- which was, after all, where he and so many other Steelers dominated the NFL in the 1970s -- we touched briefly on the offense as well.
Do you get to spend much time around the team these days?
"I do not. I do the broadcast for Penn State football, so I’m usually away on the weekends. I’m like the fans on Sundays, though, I’ll watch the one o'clock or four o'clock games on T.V., but I’ll get down to a couple of games each year."
How well do you know Keith Butler? Have you had the chance to spend much time with him?
"I do not [know him well]. Obviously, I know Dick LeBeau very, very well, and have a great appreciation for the job he has done. And obviously, on the defensive side of the ball, those are the big question marks here in Pittsburgh. So everybody’s anxious to see how people will do here this year. I have not had an opportunity to sit down with [Butler], though. And he probably doesn’t want my input.
What are your thoughts on his promotion to Defensive Coordinator?
"I think it was the natural transition here. In Pittsburgh, obviously, stability in the coaching staff has always been the number one thing for the Rooney family, with the head coaches we’ve had over the years in this organization. It’s the same with the assistant coaches, as well. It seemed like a natural transition. Dick, at this juncture, wanted to leave and, with Keith Butler right there, he wanted to put his staff and his fingerprints on the defensive side, whether he wants to play coverage more, play man, play zone. But it seemed like a natural transition for him to take over."
Regarding the 2015 defense, what do you see as their greatest strengths?
"If you want to talk about strengths, you’ve got to talk about the offensive side, but I think there are question marks across the board here on the defense. I really believe some of the linebackers -- I talked [earlier today at the Comcast event] about [Ryan] Shazier being able to stay healthy all season to make a great impact. Especially in the culture of pro football right now, people are throwing the football so much right now, to have guy who can cover as well as Shazier, he’s almost like a strong-safety-slash-linebacker. I look for him to really have a great year this year."
And their greatest weaknesses?
"The question mark is, you’ve got to have really, really great corner play. If you look at last year’s Super Bowl, Seattle had some of the most dominant corners out there and they kind of dictated to an offense with the very aggressive style that Seattle played. And even New England, who had (Darrelle Revis), and they had a corner they brought from Seattle. You had four good corners in that Super Bowl, and it was no accident that those two teams made the Super Bowl.
"The key for Pittsburgh will be to see how well our corners play throughout the year. You’ve got to be able to, somewhere along the line -- I don’t want to go back to my era, but Mel Blount, when I was playing, he was a corner who you could, you know, put him out there and you could do combinations and double the tight end with a linebacker and a safety, and you could double on the other side of the field, and it gives you a luxury there [because Blount could cover so well one-on-one]. And it’s not any different in today’s game, in that you’ve got to be able to cover with one-on-one coverage. If you have that one dominant guy out there, it really gives you a leg up in the secondary."
What do you feel are the defense's keys to success in 2015?
"It’s a work in progress right now for Pittsburgh and I think a lot of people feel we’re going to have to outscore a lot of people this year. That may end up being the case, and it may end up being the case tomorrow night. But, yeah, secondary play, corner play, is going to be the critical factor for this team in how well they play."
Right now, do you think there is a better trio of quarterback, running back and wide receiver than Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown?
"I agree with you. I think those three guys, Brown especially, not even running routes as a receiver, but runs after the catch. If you get him the ball in the open field, then there is a great opportunity for yards after the catch and sometimes touchdowns. He’s great out of his breaks, he runs precise routes. Roethlisberger, people just bounce off him. I had an opportunity to play some golf with him this summer. In my era, he might have played defensive tackle. He’s 255, 260 [pounds] out there, and he absorbs a lot of punishment, and that’s part of his DNA, I think. He’s a guy who makes big plays right after someone bounces off him.
"For Bell, they’re going to miss him for the first two games right now. Doing Penn State games, I watched this kid play at Michigan State, and the thing people don’t realize is he’s a good route runner out of the backfield, and they get mismatches and line him up in the slot, and when you catch 80-some balls like he did last year, that’s a great outlet for Roethlisberger to get him the football in space. He’s a great route runner as well. I don’t think they realized how complete a running back Bell is until they got him here. I think that was a great draft to bring him in. So yeah, I totally agree with you. I can’t think of any trio as good as those guys."
If you were a coach, would you rather have Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown, or would you take Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and either Lynn Swann or John Stallworth (take your pick)?
Ham was also eager to mention a few details about the X1 Sports App, which could be a helpful tool for Steelers fans this season, . It works for other sports leagues, as well.