Another series, a collaborative one, to take you through the remaining weeks of the offseason. Jon Ledyard and I will pick a side in choosing the greatest Pittsburgh Steelers at each position. Tell us who is right and who won the debate – those don’t have to be the same answer – in the comments.
We move over to the defensive side of the ball today. Jon selects Casey Hampton as the best defensive tackle while I state a case for Joe Greene.
Defensive linemen like Mean Joe Greene and Ernie Stautner live in Steelers lore as legends, and we hear tales of their on and off field exploits that sound more fiction than fact. It’s not fiction however, as both players have earned their place in the annals of Pittsburgh sports history with fantastic careers spent dominating the opposition in rare fashion. But sometimes that larger-than-life status makes their elite group too exclusive, and neglects other players who have had similar, but perhaps more under-the-radar impacts during their time in Pittsburgh.
Casey Hampton is one of those players. Of all the great Steelers to line up defensively during the early 21st century, Hampton was easily among the best. The 3-4 defense is absolutely predicated on a top-notch, two-gapping nose tackle who can eat up space and blockers, get penetration, and consistently re-route backs my being immovable at the point of attack. That is literally an exact description of Hampton’s skill set, which he utilized to dominate the position for 12 years in Pittsburgh. Rarely do you see the consistency snap-to-snap, season-to-season, for a double-team-eating, true nose tackle that you saw from Hampton.
You see, Hampton’s success made everything James Farrior, and Larry Foote, and a host of other talented linebackers did possible. Typically the biggest struggle for a 3-4 nose tackle is conditioning and staying active every play. One look at the 6’1, 330-pound Hampton, and it would be easy to believe he suffered a similar plight. Not so on the field however, as the man they called “Big Snack” was only intent on eating the opposition on every play. When asked about how relentless he was at a position not typically known for its three-down ability, Hampton’s reply to The Daily Texan in 2000 was priceless:
“The way I see it, you never know when your last play is going to be. So you should go hard all the time. There’s no reason to take a play off.”
Five Pro Bowl berths weren’t enough to do Hampton’s level of play justice, as his presence was absolutely vital to both the Steelers Super Bowl titles in 2006 and 2009. Nose tackles aren’t supposed to be measured by their statistical production, yet Hampton still managed to put together four 40-tackle seasons. Nose tackles also aren’t known for their pass-rushing prowess, and while no one would confuse Hampton with Bruce Smith, it was his late-game sack of Matt Hasselbeck in the Super Bowl that helped seal the victory for the Steelers in 2006.
Hampton’s laid-back demeanor in the locker room meshed perfectly with his on-field intensity, making him extremely popular among his Pittsburgh teammates. Everything the Steelers accomplished defensively during those years began and ended with Hampton. The fans may not have realized it, but the front office, coaches, and players had no doubts.
Hampton is unequivocally the best nose tackle I’ve ever seen play the game with my own two eyes, based heavily on his consistency, motor, and longevity of dominance at the position. Vince Wilfork and Jamal Williams are both close seconds, but Hampton simply played one of the more difficult positions on the field with a swagger and a relentlessness that carried over to the rest of the Pittsburgh defense.
Replacing Hampton has been an ongoing struggles for the past two years, an issue that will continue into the 2015 campaign. Many great defensive lineman have patrolled the trenches for Pittsburgh, but none have had the unique impact that Hampton did as the staple of Pittsburgh’s ultra-successful 3-4 defense in the 2000s. At least carve out a special niche for him in your voting as one of the best, if not the best, true nose tackles in NFL history.
I could surprise you with my pick. I plan to later on in this series. But here? No. I won’t do that because I’m not a fool. Not only is Joe Greene the best defensive tackle in team history, he’s the greatest player to ever wear a Steelers’ uniform.
The majority of people agree and rarely do people agree about “the best ever” in sports. Especially on a team with so many qualified candidates.
Greene was the first piece to turn the franchise around. He was electric, dominant, sometimes ill-tempered. You could fill up a book with stories about him, and because so many have told it better than I, here’s a couple from Gary Pomerantz’s Their Life’s Work and Dan Rooney’s autobiography.
This story comes from Greene in high school after a loss to an all-white team.
“Now, at the diner, Greene would salvage defeat as only he could. He snatched an ice cream cone from the hand of an opposing player and smeared it in his face. The player did not retaliate, he knew better, but cursed loudly at Greene as he stepped outide and onto the Waco Carver team bus. Greene followed him…from inside, a player called out to Greene and threw a soda bottle at him, but it struck the closed front door and shattered. In a rage Greene stormed ahead, one man ready to take on an entire team. With his massive hands, he pried open the door, though it took some doing. By the time he stepped inside, the opposing team was gone, having escaped the bus through its read emergency door.”
“At his first practice, Noll called an ‘Oklahoma Drill,’ a scrimmage which pitted one offensive lineman against one defensive lineman…our veteran lineman – Sam Davis, Ray Mansfield, Bruce Van Dyke – were waiting for him, wager to show the rookie what professional football was all about.
Ray Mansfield was first, and Joe threw him away like he was a paper doll and crushed the back…That was the start, and from that day Joe Greene set a tone and an attitude on the practice field and in games that losing is completely unacceptable.”
“In the second game of the  season, the Philadelphia Eagles beat us 41-27. In this game, we started to come back in the fourth quarter. We went for it on fourth down and again didn’t make it. In a fit of frustration, Joe Greene picked up the ball and threw it into the stands. This got him thrown out of the game, and most people in the league thought he was a smart-aleck. But when I saw him do that, I knew we had a good man. This guy wanted to win and wouldn’t tolerate failure.”
He was the baddest of the bad. And he didn’t need a T-shirt exclaiming his disposition. A guy who got kicked out of every game his sophomore year of high school. And he landed in Pittsburgh, a city he barely knew and certainly didn’t like, with a no-nonsense coach. Chuck Noll reeled him in, harnessed what made him great, and oh boy, was he ever.
Ten Pro Bowls, a five-team first-team All-Pro, two-time defensive player of the year. A feat only a few great ones have ever achieved: Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Ray Lewis, and of course, Mean Joe.
It’s a shame sacks weren’t an official statistic until the year after he left the game but it’s been documented he recorded a whopping 11 in 1972, including five in a late-season 9-3 slugfest over the Houston Oilers. Some have pegged him at 78.5 career sacks, a figure that’s never been confirmed.
Perhaps we would’ve been even more dominant had several injuries, including a pinched nerve, slowed him down by the end of his career.
As much as he perpetuated the persona of a mean, nasty guy, he loved his team. The iconic moment of him carrying Lynn Swann off the field, feeling in just one arm because of his injury.
I would’ve given anything to be alive during the dynasty but man, I’d love to witness those moments just as badly.
Outside of ownership, he’s the only person to wear six Super Bowl rings, and there is no one more deserving. It was a revolution. A football one. On the field, Joe Greene was the unquestioned leader.