In the mid-90s, Greg Lloyd was the unquestioned leader of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, and for good reason. In his 10 seasons with the team, Lloyd was a five-time pro bowler and a three-time first team All Pro. He was also regarded as one of the most feared defensive players of the decade. Lloyd eventually gave way to Joey Porter, who then gave way to James Harrison, both of whom became all-time Steelers greats as well as two of the best defensive players at their position during their prime. Both Porter and Harrison also took over the role of team leader during their playing time.
On offense, Jerome Bettis was a pillar of leadership during the late 90s and early 2000s. Upon his retirement, Hines Ward stepped in and the offense rarely missed a beat, right up through his retirement following the 2011 season.
During the salary cap era, the organization has been successful in replacing it's core stars with new ones, players who not only excel at their position but who also provide the intangible qualities that turn good teams into championship teams.
Of course, there's been a hiccup or two along the way (consecutive losing seasons in 1998 and 1999 and consecutive 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013) but, by and large, the Steelers machine keeps running.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, defensive ends Aaron Smith and Brett Kiesel stepped into leadership roles following the departure of Kimo von Oelhoffen. Lawrence Timmons took over for Larry Foote and James Farrior. Troy Polamalu emerged as a leader in the secondary, a role that had been left vacant for five seasons after Carnell Lake left.
But now, players like Polamalu and Kiesel are gone. So is Ike Taylor. Heath Miller just retired in February, and James Harrison is likely playing his last season in a reserve role. Fortunately, the Steelers have solid leaders already in place for this coming year. Here are just a few of them:
He's rapidly emerged as the leader of the defense since being drafted in 2011. Heyward is also one of the most approachable players off the field, having been a recipient of "The Chief Award," which recognizes cooperation with the media. His leadership on the field speaks for itself, as evidenced by his 22 sacks in just five years playing as an end in a 3-4 defense.
Foster was this past year's recipient of "The Chief Award," and he held the offensive line together following Maurkice Pouncey's season ending injury. The team rewarded him with a three-year contract extension this off-season. Foster may never make a Pro-Bowl, but he's dependable, intelligent, and tough as nails.
Gay was one of the more maligned Steelers players five years ago, but has grown into a reliable and solid corner who has also provided a calming presence in the young secondary. He's aided the development of cornerback, Ross Cockrell, and looks to do the same for Senquez Golson and this year's first round pick Artie Burns.
While he was always the franchise quarterback, Roethlisberger most often took a back seat to other vocal leaders like Porter, Ward, and Bettis. Now, this is unquestionably his team, and his voice is ultimately the one everyone listens to. He's been elected a team captain seven of the past eight seasons, he's taken his receivers under his wing year in and year out, and he's always maintained a close relationship with his offensive line.
The good news is that the Steelers appear in good shape from a leadership standpoint going into the 2016 season. The bad news is that these same players are also getting up there in age. Roethlisberger is 34, Foster 30, and Gay 31.
So, this begs the question: Who will emerge as team leaders of the future, players who will look to continue the Steelers Super Bowl success?
David DeCastro, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, and Senquez Golson...you're on deck.