As you might have noticed, veteran football guru Gil Brandt has been whittling away the offseason hours for NFL.com by constructing his list of the top players at every position throughout the history of the game. As we have already seen, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been well-represented on a few of them, but nowhere did they get as much face time as they did on his list of the best safeties that he recently posted.
In a list of 31 players, the Steelers were represented by no fewer than three safeties, and you should probably be able to guess who they are. In the order in which they played, Donnie Shell, Carnell Lake, and Troy Polamalu all made the list.
Two of them, in fact, made it into the top 10, with Polamalu being ranked as the second-greatest safety in the history of the game. He finished only behind Hall of Famer Emlen Tunnell, who recorded an absurd 79 interceptions from 1948 to 1961, following Vince Lombardi from the Giants to the Packers to finish out the final three of his 14 years in the game.
Tunnell’s interception total to this day ranks second behind only Paul Krause, who recorded 81 from 1964 to 1979, so I’m certainly not going to put up much of a fuss with his inclusion on the list ahead of Polamalu.
But there is no denying the unique presence that Polamalu brought to the game whenever he was on the field. In many ways, some of the things that he did foreshadowed the rise of the nickelbacker role that we are seeing around the NFL today.
Over 12 seasons, Polamalu went to eight Pro Bowls, primarily missing out due to injuries, also being voted first-team All-Pro four times. He was the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year. But his greatest qualities can only be distilled in the replays of some of his most iconic plays. There is no statistic for some of the things that he did on the field.
Yet from a sheer statistical standpoint, Shell was every bit Polamalu’s rival, recording 51 interceptions and recovering 19 fumbles over a 14-year career in Pittsburgh. Brandt listed him eighth all-time as he awaits a long-overdue phone call for enshrinement into the Hall of Fame.
As noted above, Carnell Lake also gets a mention, coming in at 30 on the list. A five-time Pro Bowler himself, Lake had a long career, with his first decade being spent with the Steelers, but also playing with the Jaguars and Ravens later on at the end of his playing days.
It should go without saying that Pittsburgh should consider itself fortunate to have built such a legacy over the course of their history with great safeties. While none of them are currently in the Hall of Fame, at least two of them are deserving.