Top 10 Steelers Linebackers of All-Time

October 2, 2013 • Ben Heck • AFC, Front Page, History, Lists

Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau told ProFootballTalk a couple of weeks ago that rookie OLB Jarvis Jones is on the right path to a great career as a Pittsburgh linebacker. He compared the young pass-rusher to former PIT LBs Jason Gildon, James Harrison, Joey Porter, Greg Lloyd and LaMarr Woodley.

“We’ll see how he develops. He has a great work ethic. Obviously, we think he is playing well or we wouldn’t have started him,” LeBeau stated.

It’s clearly far too early to completely project how his career will turn out, but it’s a great start for the 23-year old considering a HOF defensive coordinator just gave him a huge complement just two games into his rookie campaign.

This got us thinking: It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Steelers have had some all-time greats play linebacker over the last four or five decades. But, which ones crack the Top 10? Here’s a list of the 10 best Steelers linebackers that we have compiled. Hopefully this will open up a full-on discussion.

Honorable Mentions: LaMarr Woodley, David Little, Chad Brown, Mike Merriweather

10. Kevin Greene

Greene, a borderline Hall of Famer, played just three of his 15 NFL seasons with the Steelers, yet he still cracks the top 10 because of the impact he had on those three years (1993-95). Greene (160.0 career sacks), one of the league’s best pass-rushing LBs of all-time, was named to the Pro Bowl in all three of his seasons in Pittsburgh, and was selected to the First Team All-Pro squad twice. Pittsburgh was in the top 5 in overall defense all three years, and even made a trip to the Super Bowl in his final season with the team prior to taking off for Carolina in ’96.

9. James Harrison

Silverback‘s career got off to a rough start as an undrafted free agent signing with the Steelers in 2002, coming out of Kent State (same college that another famous and HOF Pittsburgh LB hails from). Harrison was seen as too short to play linebacker and too small for the defensive line, so he spent his first few years going between the practice squad and the active roster, including being cut by the team three times. In 2003 he was signed by the Ravens for a brief time before being cut for the third and fourth time. When on Pittsburgh’s active roster in his early playing days, Harrison simply played on special teams. Finally, in 2007, his fifth season with the Steelers, Harrison broke out and started all 16 games at outside linebacker. After recording 98 total tackles and 8.5 sacks that season, he was named to his first of five career Pro Bowls. Though he’s now with the Cincinnati Bengals at age 35, Harrison finished his Pittsburgh career with 617 combined tackles, 64.0 sacks, 5 interceptions, 29 forced fumbles, two First Team All-Pro selections and a pair of Super Bowl rings in 97 starts.

8. Jason Gildon

The three-time Pro Bowler, Gildon, spent 10 seasons manning the left outside linebacker position for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was the team’s main source of sacks from that spot. At 6’4″/255, Gildon was a well-rounded linebacker coming off the outside, and received his first chance to start for the defense when Greg Lloyd went down with an injury in 1996. He took advantage of the opportunity by recording 59 tackles and 7.0 sacks in 13 starts. From there, Gildon went on to start at OLB for Pittsburgh over the next seven seasons, and becoming a staple in the pass-rushing attack. He teamed up with a young Joey Porter in 2000, as the two formed a dangerous pass-rushing duo from the outside positions––Gildon recorded a career-high 13.5 that season while Porter added 10.5 in just his second NFL season. Gildon retired from the game, after one season with Jacksonville, as Pittsburgh’s all-time sack leader (77.0), and he still is atop that list.

7. James Farrior

Farrior may be one of the most underrated linebackers in the modern era. He’s never been a flashy guy, or a top-tier pass-rusher. But that’s never been his role with the Pittsburgh Steelers throughout his career. The inside linebacker was the epitome of consistency during his 15-year career, missing just six games from 2001 to his final season in 2011. Entering the league in 1997, Farrior’s early impact was limited (spent first five seasons with the New York Jets). But after leaving New York via free agency, Farrior joined the Steelers in 2002 and made an immediate impact on the field. In his 10 years with Pittsburgh, Farrior quietly did his job on the field and helped his team win games and championships. He finished his 10 Steeler seasons with 1,086 combined tackles, 30.0 sacks, 8 interceptions and 12 forced fumbles in 154 starts. He missed just six regular season games and recorded 43 tackles, 5.0 sacks and picked off two passes in 18 postseason games (postseason game stats includes two with the Jets).

6. Levon Kirkland

The 270-pound inside linebacker played nine of his 11 NFL seasons with the Steelers, assisting in pass coverage and plugging the middle of the line in run situations. The oversized Kirkland recorded just 18.5 sacks in his 124 starts, but was much quicker than you’d expect given his size. He was great at chasing down ball-carriers, but was pretty underrated when it came to pass-coverage. He recorded 11 career interceptions––all with the Steelers––and had six seasons with 100+ combined tackles. Alongside outside linebacker Greg Lloyd, Kirkland also provided the Pittsburgh defense with emotional leadership and was a key part of their Super Bowl run in 1995, though they ended up falling to the Dallas Cowboys. The two-time Pro Bowler was a vital piece to Pittsburgh’s defensive puzzle from 1992-2000.

5. Greg Lloyd

As mentioned above, the outside linebacker Lloyd was a leader for Pittsburgh’s defense in the 1990s. Seen as a feared tackler during his career from 1988-1998, the five-time Pro Bowler played 10 of his 11 seasons with Pittsburgh (his final season was spent in Carolina). Following David Little’s retirement from the game in 1992, Lloyd became the heart and soul of Pittsburgh’s top-tier defense and was a mentor to the younger linebackers around him. Though he was never really seen as a dangerous pass-rusher (recorded just one season of double-digit sack totals), Lloyd was one of the most well-rounded outside linebackers of his era and is without a doubt a top five linebacker in Pittsburgh’s history. Lloyd’s son, Greg Lloyd Jr., is currently an NFL free agent (also a LB). He spent 2011 with the Eagles and 2012 with the Colts and Bills.

4. Joey Porter

If this list was for “Top 10 Biggest Trash Talkers” among Steelers linebackers, Joey Porter would most definitely be No. 1 on the list. Porter spent his 13-year NFL career at outside linebacker, holding down that position for eight seasons in Pittsburgh. As stated above (in Jason Gildon’s paragraph), Porter broke out as a second-year pro with 10.5 sacks, and went on to record 60.0 during his Pittsburgh career––good enough for third all-time on the franchise’s sack list. But it wasn’t his pass-rushing ability that made him so great in the black and gold. It was his passion and drive for the game, coupled with his vocal leadership and relentless play on the field. He made his teammates better, and he was damn good at what he did no matter how much trash he talked to opponents. If you can talk trash and back it up, you have something special going. And the four-time Pro Bowler stepped up his game in big-time situations, such as the postseason. He played a key role in Pittsburgh’s 2005 run for a Super Bowl championship, recording three sacks and assisting the defense in surrendering just 15.5 points per game during that 4-game postseason/Super Bowl stretch.

3. Andy Russell

Given the guys he played alongside in the early-to-mid-1970s, it’s understandable that Russell would get overlooked as one of the Steelers’ all-time great linebackers. But the seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker was there with the Steelers before the Chuck Noll era had even begun in 1969. Russell’s career began as a rookie in 1963, and he had been named to his first Pro Bowl a season before Noll arrived. He was already an established playmaker on a weak and overlooked Pittsburgh defense. Russell had left the team after his rookie season to join the army, and was away from the game for two seasons, but managed to pick up right where he left off upon his return in 1966. Russell earned two Super Bowl rings after Noll had built the defense around him in the ’70s, and Russell returned a 93-yard interception for a touchdown in a 28-10 postseason victory over the Baltimore Colts. Perhaps one of his more famous plays during his 12-year career.

2. Jack Ham

Kirkland was a run-stopper, Porter and Greene were great pass-rushers, Lloyd was an emotional leader on the field and in the locker room. Jack Ham? He had the entire package as a Pittsburgh linebacker in the 1970s and early ’80s. Playing prior to tackles and sacks were “official” stats, there aren’t really too many numbers out there to fully back up this claim, but it’s no secret the effect Ham had on the league during his playing days. The Hall of Fame LB, eight-time Pro Bowler, four-time Super Bowl champion and six-time First Team All-Pro had the most takeaways (53) in history by a non-defensive back and was a very disciplined defender. He was rarely beat in coverage and didn’t miss tackles very often at all. He is often thought of as one of the smartest guys to ever play the linebacker position, and we’re no longer talking about just Pittsburgh linebackers––we mean of all-time. His 32 career interceptions are still the most among linebackers in franchise history.

1. Jack Lambert

Lambert is still seen as the NFL’s most intimidating defensive players of all-time, and was the best middle linebacker of his era during his 11-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Hall of Famer, now 61, played with the Steelers from 1974-1984 and was the heart and soul of Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s. His vocal leadership and his drive and passion for the game propelled one of the league’s all-time best defenses to four Super Bowl championships throughout the decade of the ’70s. At 6’4″/220 pounds, Lambert was very undersized in comparison to today’s middle linebackers, but he was one of the more complete ‘backers because of his ability in coverage in addition to his speed to run sideline-to-sideline and drag down ball-carriers. One thing that most people don’t realize with Lambert is that he also picked off 28 passes throughout his career, in addition to being a very feared tackler for quarterbacks and running backs alike.

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