The Return of The Steel Curtain?
Unfortunately I wasn’t around in the 1970’s to witness the greatness of the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty, and more importantly that outstanding defense but could it be that I am witnessing the reincarnation this season? The defensive line of the 1970’s Steelers earned the nickname of ‘The Steel Curtain’ and rightly so. They were the key component to the Steelers winning four Super Bowls in a six year span. How does the 2019 Steelers defence compare to the greatness of the 1970’s?
The 1970’s Steelers
The defensive unit that formed through the 70s is regarded as arguably the greatest defensive unit in NFL history. A defense that was anchored by numerous pro bowl players and four hall of fame players. Firstly in Super Bowl IX the defensive line of Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, Joe Greene and LC Greenwood along with the rest of the defense set Super Bowl records. They held the Minnesota Vikings to 17 rushing yards and a total of 119 yards of total offense on their way to a 16-6 victory. A victory where the Vikings offense couldn’t score any points and their only points came from a fumble recovery. Then, in Super Bowl X, they managed to obliterate the Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach to the tune of seven sacks and three interceptions on route to a 21 -17 win over Staubach’s Cowboys.
In 1976 the Steelers had their teams greatest defensive unit ever despite not winning the Super Bowl that year. This can be put down to some key injuries to Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. That season the Steelers slipped to a 1-4 start and then the defense balled out. In their final nine games the Steelers shutout opponents in five games and only allowed 28 total points during the nine games. Pittsburgh won all nine games off the back of their defense and gave them a real shot at winning three straight Super Bowls.
This unit has been voted the greatest defensive unit in the history of the NFL, just edging out the 1985 Bears. During the nine game stretch the Steelers allowed two touchdowns (in the same game), five field goals and held opposing teams to an average of 3.1 points per game. The unit ended up having eight players sent to the Pro Bowl and four of them have ended up in Canton.
Who made up The Steel Curtain
“Mean” Joe Greene
The Steelers selected Greene in the 1969 draft with the fourth pick of the draft, and he ended up being the rookie of the year that season. In Super Bowl IX “Mean” Joe became the first player ever to record an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in a single Super Bowl. He ended up going on to be selected to 10 Pro Bowls in a 13-year career with Pittsburgh. Green recorded 181 games, 16 fumble recoveries and 78.5 sacks (unofficially as sacks weren’t recorded officially until 1982). The Pittsburgh organisation does not retire jerseys but no one has played wearing the number 75 since “Mean” Joe and I don’t think anyone ever will again.
L.C. “Hollywood Bags” Greenwood
Greenwood was also selected in the 1969 draft but not until the 10th round. It wasn’t until 1971 that Greenwood became the starter at left defensive end and the second of the four members of The Steel Curtain. Greenwood had a career total of 73.5 sacks, 14 fumble recoveries (five of which came in 1971 – his first season as starter). Greenwood played in all four of the Steelers Super Bowl victories in the 70s, and played exceptionally well. Unofficially he had five sacks throughout his Super Bowl appearances, and four of them came against Staubach. Although never making it to the Hall of Fame he was named to the Steelers All-Time team in 2007.
Dwight “Mad Dog” White
In 1971 the Steelers selected White in the fourth round to play defensive end and he became the third member of the Steel Curtain. Nothing sums up the toughness of this unit more than “Mad Dog” who left a hospital bed to play in Super Bowl IX, scoring the first points of the game with a tackle for a safety. White was voted to two Pro Bowls and has an unofficial sack total of 46. Dan Rooney said that White was one of the greatest players ever to play in the black and gold and he was named to the Steelers All-Time team in 1982 and again in 2007.
Ernie “Fats” Holmes
Holmes became the fourth member of the Steel Curtain in 1971 when Pittsburgh selected him with their eighth round pick. Holmes won two Super Bowls with the Steelers and is credited with 40 sacks between 1971 and 1977. He had two seasons as sack leader for the Steelers with 11.5 in 1974 and 8.5 in 1975. Many other players from the era have said that Holmes was as good as Mean Joe himself.
These are the front four that the nickname was credited to, but the whole defensive unit is known now as The Steel Curtain and that includes Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Mel Blount and J.T. Thomas. From 1973 to 1976 these players all played together and solidified the reputation of The Steel Curtain. The stats of the defenses from those years are simply incredible and you can see for yourself:
1973 – 210 points allowed, 37 interceptions, 3 defensive touchdowns, 18 fumble recoveries, 55 turnovers and an overall ranking of 8th.
1974 – 189 points allowed, 25 interceptions, 2 defensive touchdowns, 22 fumble recoveries, 47 turnovers, two shutouts and an overall ranking of 2nd.
1975 – 162 points allowed, 27 interceptions, 10 fumble recoveries, 37 turnovers, one shutout and an overall ranking of 2nd.
1976 – 138 points allowed, 22 interceptions, 24 fumble recoveries, 46 turnovers and five shutouts and an overall ranking of 1st.
Needless to say this group of players earned the title of the Steel Curtain and are rightly mentioned in the category of the greatest defense of all time but are they the only great Steeler defence?
The Steelers “Blitzburgh” defense of the 1990s was a legendary defence but they never had their championship moment. Being led by a formidable linebacker unit that included greats such as Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd, along with many others, the Blitzburgh defense drove the Steelers to five AFC Central division titles and six straight playoff appearances between 1992-1997. They advanced to three AFC title games and made one Super Bowl appearance.
The Steelers defense of the 90’s operated a 3-4 defence as opposed to the 70’s one which operated a 4-3. Dick LeBeau overwhelmed opposing offences with this defense and, whilst he didn’t get them a Super Bowl ring this time, he would when he returned in the next decade, getting not only one but two. Anyway back to the 90’s and his defense that was either at or near the top of the defensive ranks in the NFL.
Ironically the 27-17 Superb Bowl loss to the Dallas Cowboys was one of their best performances in the most heartbreaking of circumstances. Pittsburgh started slowly but in the second half they held Dallas to a shockingly low 64 yards of total offence. They managed to hold the leagues all time rushing leader, Emmitt Smith, to a measly nine yards during the final 30 minutes. The 56 rushing yards that Blitzburgh held the Cowboys to is still the lowest total by a team to win the Super Bowl. The defense did what they could in this one but it was two costly interceptions in the second half that led to this game slipping away from them.
Even though they were unable to add to the trophy collection, the 90s defence is a beloved unit amongst Steelers fans everywhere. If nothing else they gave 90’s kids like me a glimpse at what it would have been like to have witnessed the Steel Curtain.
The New Pretenders
The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers have not been what anyone was expecting. After losing Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell everyone knew the Steelers would struggle, but I don’t think anyone thought they would struggle this much. The Steelers started 0-3 but a move that they made at the end of Week 2 is reaping the rewards now. When the Steelers sent a first round pick to the Miami Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick numerous people around the NFL world were questioning this decision. It would be the first time since 1968 that the Steelers would be without a first round pick and to be honest who even cares. They have that value and more in Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick is the 10th former first round draft pick added to the Steelers defense. His addition appears to have united this unit and led them to one of the best defenses in the league. The Steelers defense has gone from giving up 30.1 points per game and 445 yards before acquiring Fitzpatrick to only giving up 17.1 points and 300 yards since. He is the most visible part of that unit that has dragged them back from the abyss of a 1-4 record to a playoff pushing 5-4 record. Fitzpatrick is a ball hawking safety and his excellent stats since donning the Black and Gold have been helped by the outstanding pass rush of TJ Watt and Bud Dupree.
Watt leads the league in quarterback hits with 22 and rushing from the other side Bud Dupree has already tied his career high in sacks with six. Sitting behind only the 49ers the Steelers have pressured quarterbacks on 30% of dropbacks and Pittsburgh have the fifth most sacks in the league. From the acquisition of Fitzpatrick and all these defensive cogs operating together the Steelers are tied for second place in the league with 11 interceptions, trailing only the Patriots (and look at the easy games they have had so far). Not only that, but they have 24 sacks (tied third) and they have allowed the third lowest passer rating (74.6).
Pittsburgh’s defense has looked even better due to the lack of output from the offense. The defense are putting up these incredible numbers and are doing it even though they are on the field a lot more than they ought to be. If Pittsburgh can continue this run and make the playoffs, or even have an outside chance at the AFC North, then it is all down to that defense and the way they work together to force quarterbacks into making mistakes.
The numbers so far
2019 – 181 points allowed, 33 sacks, 14 interceptions, 3 defensive touchdowns, 12 fumble recoveries and 30 turnovers.
The 2019 Steelers defense are outperforming their offense by a country mile but are they close to the Steel Curtain yet?? Not quite but what they are doing is making a great start to getting there. What this defense is doing is still special as they are doing it without any real help from their offense, which the 1970’s Steelers had. If this unit can stick together they will only get better and maybe they can go on a run similar to the The Steel Curtain.
Image credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports, USA Today & 247 Sports