The Pittsburgh Steelers well underway with the offseason workouts at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, also referred to as the South Side Facility. We are already into the heart of the offseason, where hope springs eternal following a few months of pretty significant changes, in terms of both departures and arrivals.
How are the rookies performing? What about the players that the team signed in free agency? Who is missing time with injuries, and when are they going to be back? What are the coaches saying about what they are going to do this season that might be different from how it was a year ago?
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: Who are the three greatest off-ball linebacker in Steelers history?
First of all, for clarification purposes in case anybody is uncertain as to what an ‘off-ball linebacker’ is, it refers to 4-3 linebackers in addition to 3-4 inside linebackers, as 3-4 outside linebackers are classified as edge defenders who are expected to play at the line of scrimmage, or ‘on the ball’.
So this question spans the length of the Steelers’ history, through both the 4-3 and 3-4 eras, and includes a wide variety of names. But let’s be honest: we already know who the top two names are going to be. Jack Ham and Jack Lambert are the two greatest off-ball linebackers in Steelers history, and two of the very best to ever play the game. I would be surprised if more than a couple of people actually disputed this.
So let’s talk about who comes next. We could go with Andy Russell, the guy who came just before them and was along for the early portion of that 1970s dynasty. Many Steelers fans believe that he ought to be in the Hall of Fame along with them. He is a seven-time Pro Bowler in his own right and had a career that included 18 interceptions. He spent his entire career up through the 1976 season as a starter.
But there are too many great players not to talk about. How about Levon Kirkland? He did play for the Steelers for nine years, making the Pro Bowl twice with an All-Pro thrown in, with 11 interceptions and 14 forced fumbles, plus 18.5 sacks.
We can’t forget about James Farrior, who was the signal-caller on the champion 2000s teams. He forced 20 turnovers with 30 sacks in his time with the Steelers even if he too often got overlooked for the Pro Bowl thanks to guys like Ray Lewis.
There’s Hardy Nickerson, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons, Earl Holmes. You can talk Ryan Shazier if you want. Who knows how far he could have gone without injuries. I’m sure there are pre-70s names I’m forgetting, so feel free to fill me in.