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 is the greatest 3-4 defensive end in Steelers history?
No, I’m not breaking things up to try to milk this series of questions for as long as I possibly can. There is a substantial material difference between 3-4 and 4-3 defensive ends (and defensive tackles, and outside linebackers). And the Steelers have had extended periods in their history in which they have used both 4-3 fronts (up to the early 80s) and 3-4 fronts (since then).
Given that the 3-4 is what they currently play, I figured we would start by focusing on that position. And while they don’t often get the recognition that they deserve, the Steelers have certainly had some very good defensive ends to run this system in their history. I’m sure you’ll remind me of the ones that I’m forgetting. Who was the greatest of them all, though?
Truth be told, I think it’s a safe bet that the three most popular answers will be Aaron Smith, Cameron Heyward, and Brett Keisel. All three have made it to the Pro Bowl before, though Heyward is the only one who has made the All-Pro list, when he recorded 12 sacks in 2017.
Let’s not forget about Keith Willis, who has the most sacks in team history by a defensive lineman (since sacks became an official statistic in 1982). His 14 sacks in his second year, 1983 (just the seconds year since sacks became official) is still the record for sacks in a season by a defensive lineman, but he also recorded 12 sacks three years later, and finished his career with 59.
Some honorable mentions could be afforded to the likes of Kimo Von Oelhoffen, Stephon Tuitt, and Ray Seals. I’m guessing that none of them are actually going to get nods as the greatest 3-4 defensive end in team history, but it shows how many good ones they’ve had. Even reserves like Travis Kirschke, Chris Hoke, and Nick Eason have been valuable in allowing the (Dick LeBeau) defense to be executed.