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Ranking the Steelers’ Top-10 game-changers of all time

In the eyes of Steelers Nation, championships are the only goals that matter. The franchise has a league-best six Lombardi trophies on display in their front office mainly due to the consistently superior efforts of game-changing players.

Super Bowl 50 - Carolina Panthers v Denver Broncos Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Given the laser focus of Steelers Nation on seeing the Black-and-gold punch another ticket to the Super Bowl, it’s instructive to take a look at some past and present players who have played central roles in cementing the team’s winning tradition. Talent is one thing, but the qualities which define the Steelers’ most storied players extend well beyond sheer athletic ability. Pittsburgh’s unparalleled pro football history has been built on exceptional players who’ve consistently showcased outstanding efforts at key points in crucial games. With the clock now ticking down on the amazing career of Ben Roethliberger, these celebrated game-changers reflect both the tangible and intangible qualities necessary for an NFL team poised on the threshold of greatness to take the final triumphant steps.

So without further ado, here are my selections for the Top-10 game-changers in Steelers history:

No. 1 — Terry Bradshaw

No matter what pundits or fans have said or written about him, and regardless of his sometimes mind-boggling critiques of past or present Steelers’ players or coaches, No. 12 was the player chiefly responsible for Pittsburgh’s incredible run to four NFL championships during the 1970s. Former Raiders head coach John Madden once referred to Bradshaw as the best quarterback he’d ever seen in terms of his ability to convert broken plays into game-winning plays. While Bradshaw has attained a legendary and almost mythical status among Steelers fans too young to have seen him play, many of those old enough to have watched Bradshaw throughout his career find it difficult to imagine Pittsburgh having any of its first four Lombardi trophies without the Blonde Bomber at the helm. And when you consider the extended championship drought that followed Bradshaw’s retirement, this underscores the huge challenge this team will face when Big Ben decides to call it quits.

No. 2 — Franco Harris

While Bradshaw was the player most responsible for putting Pittsburgh over the top in four championship seasons, the Steelers were well-known as a run-first team throughout his career, despite the heroics of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Harris was the player who kept opposing defenses back on their heels during the game and enabled the Steelers to consistently dominate time of possession. He was also the player most responsible for extending key scoring drives that paved the way to championships. As the prototypical fullback of his day, Franco’s most-storied Immaculate Reception play was certainly an oddity. But it was also a play that revealed No. 32’s exceptional headiness on the field and burning desire to win — essential qualities for players who lead the way to championships.

No. 3 — Joe Greene

During the 1970s era when he played, there was no more athletic or physical defensive tackle in the NFL than “Mean Joe.” As the heart and soul of the Steel Curtain, Greene played the game with such raging energy that periodically, in the heat of a game, Coach Noll had to sit him down on the bench to cool his jets.

With Greene anchoring the middle of the Steelers’ defensive line, opponents found it nearly impossible to run the ball up the middle. Throughout his career, he was practically impossible for offensive linemen to block.

No. 4 — Jack Lambert

More than any other single player, “Jack Splat” personified the incredible Steel Curtain defense and its 1970s NFL reign of terror. If you ignore the psychological aspect of pro football, then you might choose the technically-flawless Jack Ham as the Steelers’ greatest-ever linebacker. But Lambert was the player who struck genuine fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks and their offenses.

Jack was the growling, toothless face of the greatest defense in NFL history. While he was on the field, there was never anything tentative about his play, and he rarely missed a tackle under any circumstances. Win or lose, Lambert delivered consistent, 100-percent efforts. He also famously played the role of nasty big-brother on the field, zealously defending his kickers and other, smaller teammates who occasionally were bullied by opponents. With four Super Bowl rings in his collection, No. 58 epitomized the type of player you need to win a Lombardi Trophy.

No. 5 — Jerome Bettis

Jerome Bettis played essentially the same role for the Steelers during his career as Franco Harris had done during the ‘70s. He was the prototypical fullback of his day, combining incredible power with surprising agility and elusiveness for such a large man. The crowning glory of Jerome’s career came in his final pro season when the Steelers captured their fifth league championship in Super Bowl XL, defeating the Seattle Seahawks in his hometown of Detroit.

Undoubtedly, Bettis was a player with the same level of talent and burning desire as Franco. But particularly in 3rd-and-short situations, “The Bus” was virtually unstoppable. His ability to knock tacklers backwards and move the pile was unparalleled during the period when he played. Strictly in terms of championship contributions, however, Franco deserves the higher rank on this list with his 4-to-1 advantage in Super Bowl rings.

No. 6 — Ben Roethlisberger

Just as Bradshaw was the chief catalyst in four Steelers’ championships, without Big Ben taking the snaps for today’s Steelers, it’s doubtful the franchise ever would have notched its NFL-best fifth and sixth league titles. Whatever flaws his critics may have cited, there’s no doubt that Pittsburgh is home to an NFL quarterback who will be remembered as one of the greatest of all time.

Even in a disappointing defeat in the Steelers’ recent playoff loss to Jacksonville, Ben totally shredded the Jag’s defense, showing the football world that he’s still at the top of his game and one of the most lethal passers in the league. Perhaps the most intriguing similarity between Big Ben and Bradshaw is their shared capability to turn around broken plays. This capability represents a major reason why the faithful of Steelers Nation have had such a thrilling ride extending over so many years.

No. 7 — Hines Ward

Throughout the entire history of the Black-and-gold, there’s never been a player quite like Ward. In terms of sheer “want to” and lust for competition, I’d rank Ward at the very top of this list of superstars. As the ultimate possession receiver, Ward’s specialty was snatching quick flicks from Roethlisberger that moved the sticks and demoralized Steelers’ opponents. But he was also incredibly adept at finding openings in opponents’ secondaries, especially on the many big plays when Ben was flushed out of the pocket. No receiver in the league was more reliable or fearless when catching passes over the middle than No. 86. He certainly absorbed more than his share of physical pounding during his career. Ward’s blocking ability and pure physical toughness were exceptional for an NFL wide receiver of any era.

No. 8 — Antonio Brown

When Hines Ward retired, I considered his NFL career and never-say-die attitude as the epitome of the kind of player you need to win a championship. But these days, No. 84 clearly has entered a category by himself among NFL receivers of all time. While his athleticism obviously is freakish, Brown excels equally because he shares Ward’s dogged, whatever-it-takes approach to the game. As every NFL defense has discovered during his career, there’s simply no way to stop AB on the gridiron. He consistently makes plays that leave both network broadcasters and opponents’ coaches scratching their heads in bewilderment. He brings to the game both a technical mastery of his position and a burning desire to win. He routinely makes game-winning plays in crucial situations — and makes it look easy. Despite his relatively small stature, Brown plays like he’s the biggest receiver on the field.

We can only hope that AB finishes his career in Pittsburgh and does so in possession of one or two Super Bowl rings. But regardless of how things pan out, Brown seems destined to rewrite the record book for receivers, particularly assuming he continues his amazing collaboration with Roethlisberger. And because of the records he’s smashing, no future discussion of the greatest Steelers in history ever will exclude No. 84.

No. 9 — Greg Lloyd

Lloyd’s 11-year NFL career from 1988 to 1998 (including 10 years with the Steelers) unfortunately took place during the Steelers’ extended championship-drought period. But during that era, no NFL team had a better outside linebacker than No. 95. As great as the Steelers’ 1970s linebackers were, Lloyd might have been the only Steelers’ linebacker of his day good enough to have won a starting job on the Steel Curtain defense.

In the 10 years he played for Pittsburgh, Lloyd notched 53.5 sacks and 34 forced fumbles. His durability was equally remarkable, as Lloyd played in at least 14 regular-season games in seven out of the 10 seasons when he wore black-and-gold.

No. 10 — Jack Ham

As someone who watched Ham play throughout his entire career, I can honestly state that I’ve never seen a better overall linebacker on any NFL team than No. 59. In fact, if you’re a young defensive player who wants to know how to play the LB position, I suggest you stock up on all of the grainy game film you can find on this guy. For a low-key perfectionist like Chuck Noll, the even-tempered Ham was the ideal player — nearly always in perfect position on any given play and possessing an uncanny nose for the football.

During his 12 seasons with the Black-and-gold, Ham snatched 32 interceptions and recovered 21 fumbles. If a Steelers’ opponent tried to run an end-sweep on Ham’s side of the field, most often they could count on losing yardage. He was unparalleled in his ability to knife through lead-blockers and tackle ball-carriers behind the line of scrimmage. While Ham might not have been the fearsome enforcer that his sidekick Lambert was, everyone associated with the 1970s NFL knew that No. 59 was one of the best in the business.

When we talk about game-changing players, we mean more than players who must always be accounted for by the opposition in their game-planning. These are the players who, regardless of an opponent’s pregame preparations, cannot be accounted for under any circumstances. They’re the winners whose personal standards are higher even than those of the teams for which they play. They’re the ones never satisfied with giving anything less than their absolute best on the gridiron. Regardless of changes in the modern game of pro football, this rare kind of player still is considered the gold standard in the NFL — and certainly the standard for the 6-time champion Pittsburgh Steelers.