TAMPA, Fla. You think of the 49ers, you think of quarterbacks - Tittle, Brodie, Montana, Young. Some positions just define a franchise. It’s that way with the Steelers and linebackers. Seems like Pittsburgh always has a run-stuffing/passer-stomping ‘backer coming out of the oven. Jack Ham exits, Mike Merriweather enters. Joey Porter wears out his welcome, James Harrison emerges. There have been so many, it’s hard to remember them all.
It’s rare, in fact, that the club DOESN’T have a linebacker who’s all-this or all-that. In 32 of the last 40 seasons - since Chuck Noll started turning them into terrors, in other words - the Steelers have sent at least one ‘backer to the Pro Bowl. One year, 1975, they sent three.
A crouching linebacker - preferably with a neck roll - should probably be part of the team logo. The position, after all, is just so… Pittsburgh. As Kevin Colbert, the club’s director of football operations, puts it: “A certain personality is not going to work in western Pennsylvania. It’s not a finesse crowd. They appreciate toughness. They appreciate hard work - because that’s what this region projects.”
Western Pennsylvania is coal country - and formerly steel country. That is, manual, nose-to-the-grindstone labor country. And the linebacker spot is symbolic of that: chiseled men doing a dirty job with a demented smile on their faces. Andy Russell, an Army veteran, began the current tradition in the late ‘60s, and it has been carried on by snaggle-toothed Hall of Famer Jack Lambert, the trash-talking Porter and 13 others who achieved Pro Bowl status.
Sixteen Pro Bowl linebackers in four decades. It’s practically in the franchise bylaws: The defense shall have a minimum of one fire-breathing ‘backer at all times. The Steelers club preparing for Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Cardinals has two headed to Hawaii: outside guy Harrison and inside guy James Farrior. And second-year outside man LaMarr Woodley, who had 11.5 sacks this season, is likely the Next One.
They’re the main reason Pittsburgh’s strangling 3-4 defense finished first overall in the NFL (No. 1 against the pass, No. 2 against the run) and allowed the fewest points, a piddling 13.9 a game. And that makes them the main reason, really, the Steelers are here. The offense certainly knows it, knows its place in the grand scheme of things.
“We just have to score one more point than the other team,” receiver Santonio Holmes says. “The defense will take care of the rest. They’ve done it this far, and they’ll continue doing it.”
Harrison, Farrior, Woodley and Larry Foote, the lower-profile fourth member of the troupe, are well-versed in Steelers linebacker history. They see the pictures on the walls. They’ve seen the game footage. They’ve talked to Lambert about the best way to pad a forearm.
“I’ve known about them since I was a kid,” says Woodley, who grew up in Saginaw, Mich. “This team is built on linebackers. It puts pressure on you to perform. You want to be considered in the same class with Lambert, [Greg] Lloyd, [Jack] Ham, Kevin Greene.”
Granted, the “Steel Curtain” - the nickname most associated with the Super Bowl defenses of the ‘70s - referred to the line, to Joe Greene and his fellow meanies. But the linebackers were the iron lining behind it. And with the defensive front less identifiable now because of the switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4, the ‘backers have become the face of the unit.
Harrison, for instance, was just named the NFL’s defensive player of the year by the Associated Press. He’s a 6-foot, 242-pound pass-rushing fiend who, “because he’s a lower-stature guy but superstrong and superexplosive,” gives offensive tackles fits, says Arizona offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “They’re used to blocking bigger defensive ends, and instead they’ve got this guy screaming around the [blindside] corner.”
Woodley hurries quarterbacks almost as much from the other side, and Farrior and Foote wall off the middle. James actually began his career with the Jets on the outside, but the Steelers had other ideas for him when they signed him as a free agent - and he was more than happy to oblige.
“I always wanted to be off the ball, reading and reacting, instead of having to deal with the [offensive] tackle or tight end right away,” he says. “They’ve let me do that here. It’s a very linebacker-friendly system.”
Dick LeBeau, the 71-year-old defensive boss, makes sure of that, freeing his ‘backers to be stars with a relentless array of zone blitzes - his own invention - and stunts. Still, he says, “it’s more the players, I’m sure, than the scheme - the players and the good work by the front office in finding them.”
Colbert isn’t taking any bows for “discovering” Harrison. It was more a case of luck, he says, because the club signed him as an undrafted free agent and then cut him three times before he stuck.