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.
In our last debate, we look at the best safeties. Jon chooses Troy Polamalu while I select Donnie Shell.
Hope you enjoyed the series.
Our series concludes with what should be an intriguing discussion on who the best safety in Pittsburgh Steelers history is. While I’m excited to see Alex offer an argument for Donnie Shell or Carnell Lake, I had the advantage of being able to pick first, making Troy Polamalu the obvious selection.
Honestly, the real question with Polamalu isn’t if he is the best safety in Steelers history – Lake, Shell, even Darren Perry and Mike Wagner were excellent football players, but none compare to Troy – the question is if he is the greatest safety to ever play the game. A rich 12-year career was highlighted by two Super Bowl rings, eight Pro Bowl appearances, four first-team All-Pro nods, an AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2010, and a spot on the NFL 2000s All-Decade team. There really wasn’t anything Polamalu didn’t accomplish on the football field, creating many of the best plays of the 21st century.
Polamalu was simply a walking human-highlight reel, from diving one-handed interceptions, to leaping the line of scrimmage with his patented timing and anticipation, to flying into the flat to drop a receiver after a minimal gain, the USC product was simply magical on the field. His long, flowing mane became an iconic image of Steelers football in the 2000s, as Polamalu led a defense that carried the franchise to two more Super Bowl victories.
If you picture Polamalu right now, you’re probably recalling several of his best plays, which coincidentally are also some of the finest in Steelers history. Leaping over the offensive line to sack Jake Locker. The diving one-handed interception to pick off Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb on a deflected pass. An epic scoop-and-score against Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in 2005. His NFL breakout moment where he weaved through tacklers on his way to the end zone after an interception against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2004. And of course, both of his back-breaking plays against the Baltimore Ravens, which were vital to sending the Steelers back to the Super Bowl in two separate years.
There may not have been a more impactful defensive player in Pittsburgh history than Polamalu, a huge statement to make, but one that is not said lightly. Forcing 46 career turnovers to go with 12 sacks, seven fumble recoveries, and five defensive touchdowns is impressive enough, but the style Polamalu exhibited, and the situation he made the plays in is perhaps the most enduring part of his legacy. He was simply always ready when the lights shone the brightest, carrying a team that in several instances would have been lost without him.
His 12-year reign of terror against opposing offenses now over, Polamalu opted for retirement this past offseason. He’ll be sorely missed by the Steelers moving forward, as a player whose role and instincts will be impossible to replicate. A once-in-a-lifetime type of player who left his lasting mark on and off the field with Pittsburgh, the discussion surrounding whether Polamalu is the greatest safety in NFL history or not will continue for years to come. As it pertains to Steelers history however, there is simply no doubt.
I’ve given you some surprises with my last two picks. Not here. I’m not going to do that to Donnie Shell.
Again, I want to preface by saying if I had first choice, I’d pick Mr. Polamalu. But it was Jon’s turn to go first and you know who he selected. Life isn’t fair. It says so on my college degree.
Polamalu had the luxury of coming in as a first-rounder. If he was a UDFA and had that free wheeling, educated-guess madness, he might not have made it. Shell was in the situation. He came into the league as a longshot in 1974 when the Steelers’ cupboard was full of talent, led by safeties Mike Wagner and Glen Edwards. Both were tremendous players and deserve consideration on this list.
In ’74, Edwards picked off five passes and recovered three fumbles. Shell was mixed in his first three seasons, starting only a total of three games, but the Steelers could see how good he was going to be. With three players for two spots, the team made a move, trading Edwards to the San Diego Chargers before the 1978 season while moving Wagner to free safety.
Over the summer, Tony Dungy stated the case for Shell’s induction into the Hall, discussing the trade with Rick Gosselin.
“The Steelers traded a Pro Bowl safety in Glen Edwards to get Donnie into the starting lineup, and he stayed there for a decade.”
Similarly to Troy’s presence in the box, Shell was a great run defender.
Donnie played in the box and was like another linebacker as a run defender. He was probably the most physical player on a physical defense and also had 51 interceptions. He covered Hall-of-Fame tight ends like Ozzie Newsome man-to-man and covered wide receivers in the nickel package. He patrolled the deep zones. He could do it all,” said Dungy.
High praise from a man who has seen plenty of talent.
Though he never led the league in a given year, he recorded at least one interception in each of his 14 years. That’s the second longest streak in NFL history only trailing Brian Dawkins and Eugene Robinson’s 15, according to Pro Football Reference.
By the end of his career in 1987, he had played the second most games of anyone in franchise history, picked off 51 passes, won four Super Bowls, made five Pro Bowls, and four All-Pro teams.
If we were doing a blind resume test, like a NCAA bubble graphic you’ll see on TV, those are Hall of Fame figures. And well deserved for the greatest safety of all-time.