Ernie Holmes was known for many things in his seven year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, both good and not-so-good.
Holmes was an eighth round draft pick out of Texas Southern University, one of the many recruits from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that Chuck Noll, the Rooney family and scout Bill Nunn would make part of the greatest dynasty in the history of the NFL that was the 1970's Pittsburgh Steelers.
Holmes would become one of the most destructive forces in the NFL for several years, known for his sheer strength and being a menace to offensive lines while lining up next to the greatest defensive tackle the NFL has ever seen, Mean Joe Greene. But Holmes was arguably the most unsung hero of the four man unit that made the Steel Curtain defensive line of the 1970s for Pittsburgh.
Joe Greene is rightfully regarded as the greatest Steeler to ever set foot on the gridiron. Defensive ends Dwight White and L.C. Greenwood, each were selected to multiple Pro Bowls during their careers and were Super Bowl heroes recognized for performances that were firsts on the NFL's biggest stage. Dwight White became the first Steeler to ever score in the Super Bowl when he recorded the first safety in Super Bowl history in the first half against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX. Greenwood would record the most sacks in the history of the Super Bowl to this day when he brought down Dallas Cowboys' quarterback Roger Staubach four times during Super Bowl X.
Ernie Holmes had no major stat to hold to his name, but he had the ultimate respect of his teammates for being both an elite talent at defensive tackle, and for being outright crazy. People would call him "arrowhead," for his haircut that literally formed his hair in the shape of an arrow; an act that when asked why he did it he would say that it was for him to be pointed straight to the quarterback. His time in Pittsburgh was riddled with many crazy stories such as intense police chases and a serious drinking problems, all of which you can read in Gary Pomerantz's great book, "Their Life's Work," which details many stories about the 70's Steelers.
While Holmes will never be a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he had many great performances in his career and often seemed an unstoppable force in the middle of the Steelers' defense.
We take a look back at some of his playoff performances against the Oakland Raiders in the mid-1970's to highlight just how good of a player Holmes was in his time. Part of Holmes' legend was how he would completely dominate the Raiders' offensive line in many games. That Raiders line of the early-mid 70's is often regarded as the greatest offensive line in NFL history. It has three members of the Pro Football Hall of fame in center Jim Otto, guard, Eugene Upshaw and tackle Art Shell. Upshaw often faced Holmes with their assignments and is oft called the greatest guard to ever play the game, but Holmes was his worst nightmare.
Block shed and stuff in 1974 AFC Championship Game
The 1974 Raiders seemed like a team of destiny after beating the reigning back-to-back Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins in the "sea of hands" game in the AFC divisional round. They had the NFL's highest scoring offense with 355 points in 14 games, led by the league's third best ground attack that averaged over 166 yards per game. When they met the Steelers in the AFC championship game, they would rush the ball 21 times for only 29 yards.
Much of that had to do with the teamwork of the Steelers defense, especially the front seven led by Joe Greene. Holmes played a big part in this as he took Eugene Upshaw routinely throughout the game and would consistently shed his blocking attempts. Here you can see Upshaw simply be slapped away despite getting position on Holmes as number 63 goes in for the tackle that allowed only one yard inside the red zone during the fourth quarter. Holmes often got the best of Upshaw in these big games, something he never got enough credit for doing against such a legendary player.
1975 AFC Championship run stuff
The two teams would meet again in the very next season's AFC championship game, this time in Pittsburgh. The Raiders offensive ground attack would fair better than the previous season with 93 yards on 32 carries, but it was not enough to get past their big brothers, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Watch closely on this play as Holmes not only whips Upshaw at the line of scrimmage by throwing him to the ground like a rag doll, but then locates the running back and delivers a crushing tackle for no gain.
Whenever the Raiders would try to double team Joe Greene, Holmes would be a key player in the defensive scheme to hold his ground and make the play for Pittsburgh. This was part of why the Steel Curtain was the greatest defense to ever play in the NFL, because not only did it have a collection of the greatest defensive players in the league's history in its leaders, but even its lesser known talents were stalwart in their efforts and skills.
Sheds Eugene Upshaw's cut block
While I was never alive during the 1970's, I was blessed to be born into a family that knew a ton about football and had plenty of film to teach me just how great the Steelers of the 1970s were, as well as many of the other great teams in that era. In my time watching film, I rarely if ever saw Eugene Upshaw resort to using cut blocks in order to get his job done because he was usually good enough to dominate his opponent at the point of attack.
Unfortunately for him, Ernie Holmes and the Steelers defense were a lot better than the defenses he usually faced.
Watch how he throws his helmet directly at the inside knee of Holmes, a move used to take the power out from under a defender you're usually having problems with and slow his pace for the rest of the game. It's a cheap tactic in the eyes of many defensive players but unfortunately is legal and has to be taken into consideration when playing football.
None of that would slow down Holmes, who simply shrugs off Upshaw's cut block attempt and makes the tackle at the line of scrimmage. Upshaw was resorting to every trick in his book during these big matchps in what was arguably the most intense and hated rivalry that anyone has seen in the NFL, but Holmes often was up to the task.
Holmes was a bad man
When I say this, I don't mean that Holmes was bad in a sense of like an evil person, but like Muhammad Ali or Michael Jackson "bad." He was indomitable at the line of scrimmage for many years and was one of the foundation members that built the great defense that was the Steel Curtain. He never backed down and often talked enough trash for the whole team. It was to the point that no Steeler, not even Joe Greene, would want to put Holmes in check when he would go off.
Holmes had a checkered career with his wild reputation, but none of that could wash away the legend that he built in the eyes of football experts who study that era and Steelers fans who remember how dominant of a player he was on the greatest defense of all time in the NFL.