10 Best Linebackers in Steelers History (+Honorable Mentions)

Updated on December 18, 2019
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt could turn out to be an all-time great.
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt could turn out to be an all-time great. | Source

The Greatest Steelers Linebackers of All Time

The Pittsburgh Steelers are known for hard-hitting, relentless defense. When most football fans think of the Steelers defense, they think about linebackers.

Aside from quarterback, linebacker is the most demanding position on a football team. Linebackers must have the toughness to battle linemen who outweigh them by a hundred pounds. They must have the speed and quickness necessary to cover running backs, tight ends, and even wide receivers. They must have the grit needed to collide with powerful running backs at the line of scrimmage and not give an inch, yet still possess the agility needed to make open-field tackles on shifty and elusive ball carriers.

Most of all, linebackers have to be smart. It is a myth that football is a game for big men with small intellects. That is never more evident than at the linebacker position, where players must master a wide range of assignments and responsibilities.

The extent of a linebacker’s duties depends on his exact position as well as the style of defense. That is what makes choosing the best linebackers in Steelers history so tricky. For decades, the Steelers played a 4-3 defense. A 4-3 requires athletic, versatile outside linebackers and a tough middle linebacker who can range from sideline to sideline.

In the early ‘80s, the Steelers switched to the 3-4 defense they use to this day. In this defense, outside linebackers play a significant role in rushing the quarterback, though they have other assignments as well. Inside linebackers are expected to be solid tacklers against the run, but also versatile enough to cover backs out of the backfield.

What Makes a Linebacker Great?

All of this means it is really tough to compare linebackers from different eras, different defenses, and different positions. For that reason, when choosing the top Steelers linebackers in franchise history, I will be focusing on:

  • Pro Bowl nominations
  • All-Pro nominations
  • Super Bowl championships
  • A players' dominance in the era which they played
  • Overall contributions to the Steelers organization

I won’t be entirely ignoring the stats, but they will play a smaller role in my decisions.

Over the decades, the Steelers have fielded some of the all-time best defensive players at every position. Here are the 10 best linebackers in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers:

10. Kevin Greene

If this were an article about the greatest NFL linebackers of all time who also happen to have played for the Steelers, Kevin Greene would probably be in my top three. But I always struggle with Greene’s place in Steelers history, since he only spent three seasons of his Hall-of-Fame career in Pittsburgh.

Though Greene's time with the franchise was only a blip in Steelers lore, it was a fairly significant blip. Greene and fellow outside linebacker Greg Lloyd terrorized quarterbacks as part of the revamped Blitzburgh defense. In 1995, the duo played a key part in Pittsburgh's return to the Super Bowl, the first since 1979.

Greene recorded 35.5 of his 160 career sacks while with the Steelers. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.

Jersey Number: 91

Years With Steelers: 1993-1995

Accolades With Steelers

  • 2x Pro Bowl

  • 1x All-Pro

  • Hall of Fame, Class of 2016

Stats With Steelers

  • 48 Games

  • 35.5 Sacks

  • 1 Interception

9. James Farrior

Farrior was a tough and smart inside linebacker who came to the Steelers after spending his first five seasons with the New York Jets. He spent his next ten seasons in Pittsburgh as a starter on a defense that ranked number one for either yards against or points against five times.

Farrior and the Steelers defense led the franchise to Super Bowl appearances in 2005, 2008, and 2010. They won two out of three but will go down in history as one of the best defenses of all time. Farrior made two Pro Bowls and one All-Pro roster in his career, all as a Steeler. He currently ranks first in Steelers history in solo tackles with 731.

Jersey Number: 51

Years With Steelers: 2002-2011

Accolades With Steelers

  • 2x Pro Bowl

  • 1x All-Pro

  • 2x Super Bowl Champion

Stats With Steelers

  • 154 Games

  • 30 Sacks

  • 8 Interceptions

James Farrior (51) started for the Steelers in three Super Bowls.
James Farrior (51) started for the Steelers in three Super Bowls. | Source

8. Levon Kirkland

Levon Kirkland was a monster linebacker who spent nine seasons with the Steelers stomping running backs into the ground. Though most sources listed him around 275 pounds, others cited him as being even heavier. Kirkland was huge any way you looked at it, but he also had good speed and quickness.

Kirkland was part of the Blitzburgh-era linebacker corps along with outside linebackers Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd and inside linebacker Chad Brown. In his nine-year career with the Steelers, Kirkland racked up 18.5 sacks and hauled in 11 interceptions while making two Pro Bowls and one All-Pro roster.

There have been many great inside linebackers in franchise history, but I think Kirkland was one of the best. In fact, he made second-team on my All-Franchise Steelers roster.

Jersey Number: 99

Years With Steelers: 1992-2000

Accolades With Steelers

  • 2x Pro Bowl

  • 1x All-Pro

Stats With Steelers

  • 144 Games

  • 18.5 Sacks

  • 11 Interceptions

7. Joey Porter

Outside linebacker Joey Porter came to Pittsburgh in 1999. The Steelers went 6-10 in his first season, but along with players like Hines Ward, Jerome Bettis, and Alan Faneca, Porter was among the first key players in place for the Super-Bowl-era of the mid-late 2000s.

Porter was a fierce pass rusher who sacked quarterbacks 60 times during his eight seasons in Pittsburgh, a total that ranks him third in franchise history. He won a Super Bowl with the Steelers in 2005, then departed for Miami in 2007. As a Steeler, he made three Pro Bowls and one All-Pro Team.

Jersey Number: 55

Years With Steelers: 1999-2006

Accolades With Steelers

  • 3x Pro Bowl

  • 1x All-Pro

  • 1x Super Bowl Champion

Stats With Steelers

  • 122 Games

  • 60 Sacks

  • 2 Interceptions

Steelers Linebacker Joey Porter was an emotional player who brought a spark to the defense.
Steelers Linebacker Joey Porter was an emotional player who brought a spark to the defense. | Source

6. Jason Gildon

If you are a casual football fan, Jason Gildon may be one of the lesser-known linebackers on this list, but if you are a diehard fan, you know he was an important player in Steelers history. For ten seasons, Gildon tormented quarterbacks at outside linebacker. He tallied 77 sacks, a number that ranks him second in team history.

Gildon saw limited action during the Steelers' Super Bowl run in '95, but he went on to become one of the greatest outside linebackers in team history. He made three straight Pro Bowls from 2000 to 2002 as well as an All-Pro team in 2001.

Jersey Number: 92

Years With Steelers: 1994-2003

Accolades With Steelers

  • 3x Pro Bowl

  • 1x All-Pro

Stats With Steelers

  • 158 Games

  • 77 Sacks

  • 2 Interceptions

5. Andy Russell

The Steelers struggled during the first four decades the franchises existed and only turned things around after the arrival of head coach Chuck Noll in 1969. Noll built a winning team by drafting wisely and replacing older players. But Andy Russell was one of the players who stuck around.

Russell, along with Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, made up the rugged linebacker unit behind the Steel Curtain of the '70s. Russell made the Pro Bowl in 1968 and then every year from 1970 to 1975. He started in two Steelers' Super Bowl wins in 1975 and 1976.

Jersey Number: 34

Years With Steelers: 1963-1976

Accolades With Steelers

  • 7x Pro Bowl

  • 2x Super Bowl Champion

Stats With Steelers

  • 168 Games

  • 18 Interceptions

4. Greg Lloyd

Greg Lloyd is known for wearing a t-shirt during pregame that read: I wasn’t hired for my disposition. In a sentence, that appropriately sums up his role with the Steelers. Lloyd was an ill-tempered intimidator on the field who set the tone of the defense and a ruthless pass rusher who relentlessly hunted down opposing quarterbacks.

He made five straight Pro Bowls and three straight All-Pro teams during his decade with the Steelers and helped the team get to the Super Bowl in 1995. Lloyd only racked up 53.5 sacks in his career, which ranks him sixth in Steelers' franchise history. While this number seems a little low based on his talent, it is important to remember that he battled injuries during several seasons and spent his best years playing opposite Kevin Greene. Still, few Steelers pass rushers were better than Greg Lloyd in his prime.

Jersey Number: 95

Years With Steelers: 1988-1997

Accolades With Steelers

  • 5x Pro Bowl

  • 3x All-Pro

Stats With Steelers

  • 131 Games

  • 53.5 Sacks

  • 10 Interceptions

3. James Harrison

Some players come into the NFL and find instant success. Others can't cut it and eventually go away. In my opinion, the really remarkable ones are those who struggled but worked hard and got better, eventually becoming valuable members of their teams. That is the path James Harrison took.

With 80.5 career sacks, he ranks number one in Steelers franchise history. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, a year where he logged 16 sacks and the Steelers won the Super Bowl. That year, he set a record for the longest interception return in Super Bowl history with his 100-yard pick-six against the Cardinals and quarterback Kurt Warner.

Harrison made five Pro Bowls and two All-Pro rosters in his 14-season career as a Steeler. He was a member of two Super Bowl championship teams and part of the 2010 team that won the AFC Championship but lost the Super Bowl to the Green Bay Packers.

Jersey Number: 92

Years With Steelers: 2002-2012; 2014-2017

Accolades With Steelers

  • 5x Pro Bowl

  • 2x All-Pro

  • 2x Super Bowl Champion

  • 2008 Defensive Player of the Year

Stats With Steelers

  • 177 Games

  • 80.5 Sacks

  • 7 Interceptions

James Harrison (92) is one of the greatest linebackers in Steelers history.
James Harrison (92) is one of the greatest linebackers in Steelers history. | Source

2. Jack Ham

All of the players mentioned so far made incredible contributions to the Steelers organization and the NFL in general. But here near the top of our list, we enter the rarified air of the truly great players

Jack Ham is one of the greatest Steelers of all time and among the best outside linebackers in NFL history. He played a significant role in the rise of the Steelers’ franchise in the 1970s. They were the team of the decade, with one of the best defenses, and their mighty linebackers were a big reason for it.

Ham made the Pro Bowl eight times in his 12-year career and the All-Pro team six times. He was an athletic outside linebacker, a four-time Super Bowl champion who intercepted an impressive 32 passes in his career. Ham was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.

Ham's No. 59 jersey is one of several that are "unofficially" retired by Pittsburgh. That means it is unlikely we will see another Steeler wear his number ever again.

Jersey Number: 59

Years With Steelers: 1971-1982

Accolades With Steelers

  • 8x Pro Bowl

  • 6x All-Pro Selection

  • 4x Super Bowl Champion

  • Hall of Fame, Class of 1988

Stats With Steelers

  • 162 Games

  • 3 Sacks

  • 32 Interceptions

1. Jack Lambert

He was called "Count Dracula in Cleats" and "Madman Jack". He declared that all quarterbacks should wear dresses due to the special protections they receive in the NFL rulebook. He started a fight in a Super Bowl because an opposing player dared to console the Steelers kicker with a pat on the helmet. Hall-of-Fame Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway joked that he considered quitting on the spot when he came to the line and saw Jack Lambert for the first time.

Elway's assessment was fair. With his oversized shoulder pads, missing front teeth, and perpetual scowl, Lambert made Freddy Krueger look like Mr. Rogers. He played like a quarterback's worst nightmare too, and for eleven seasons he was the gold standard at middle linebacker in the NFL.

Lambert made nine Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams in his career. In 1974, he was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and in 1976 he earned Defensive Player of the Year. He won four Super Bowls as a Steeler, and in 1990 he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It is unlikely you will ever see a Steeler wearing No. 58 again. Like Ham's jersey, Lambert's is on the list of "unofficially" retired numbers.

Jersey Number: 58

Years With Steelers: 1974-1984

Accolades With Steelers

  • 9x Pro Bowl

  • 6x All-Pro Selection

  • 1974 Defensive Rookie of the Year

  • 1976 Defensive Player of the Year

  • 4x Super Bowl Champion

  • Hall of Fame, Class of 1990

Stats With Steelers

  • 146 Games

  • 8 Sacks

  • 28 Interceptions

Who Is the Greatest Steelers Linebacker of All Time?

Jack Lambert is the best Steelers linebacker of all time. He was the prototypical 4-3 middle linebacker with the toughness to play at the line of scrimmage, the speed to range sideline to sideline, and the quickness to handle pass coverage. Lambert was a smart player who was always around the ball. Most of all, he led the Steelers' defense by example, and his attitude and toughness played a significant part in the team’s success in the 1970s.

Steelers Linebackers All-Time Sack Leaders

Player
Sacks
Seasons
James Harrison
80.5
2002-2017
Jason Gildon
77
1994-2003
Joey Porter
60
1999-2006
LaMarr Woodley
57
2007-2013
Greg Lloyd
53.5
1988-1997
Note: Sacks were not an official NFL statistic until 1982. That means players like Jack Ham, Andy Russell, and Jack Lambert are not accurately represented on this list.

Honorable Mentions

T.J. Watt

2017-Present

While it may be a little early to proclaim him one of the Steelers' all-time great linebackers, so far T.J. Watt is looking like one. Watt is a tenacious pass rusher like Lloyd and Harrison before him. He made his first Pro Bowl in 2018 and has racked up 13 or more sacks in his last two seasons. He's still young, but Steeler Nation hopes this guy decides to spend his career in black and gold.

Mike Merriweather

1982-1987

Mike Merriweather played for six seasons in Pittsburgh. He came in at a time when the great Steelers linebackers of the ‘70s were riding off into the sunset. For a while, Merriweather looked like he could carry the torch, and he made three straight Pro Bowls from 1984-1986. During his career, he started 76 games as a Steeler, where he tallied 31 sacks and 11 interceptions.

David Little

1981-1992

Like Merriweather, David Little came to the Steelers at a time when the great Steelers of the 1970s Super Bowl years still haunted Three Rivers Stadium. Little stuck around for 12 seasons through the 1980s, a time when the Steelers struggled. Still, he was a solid linebacker who made a Pro Bowl in 1990. During his career he started 126 games, racked up 9 sacks, and hauled in 11 interceptions.

Chad Brown

1993-1996

For four seasons, athletic and speedy Chad Brown lined up next to fellow inside linebacker Levon Kirkland. He helped the team win an AFC Championship in 1995, and he made both the Pro Bowl and All-Pro roster in 1996. After five seasons in Pittsburgh, Brown went on to play for eight seasons with the Seahawks, where he made two more Pro Bowls and one more All-Pro team.

LaMarr Woodley

2007-2013

All-Pro Steelers outside linebacker Joey Porter left Pittsburgh for sunny Miami after the 2006 season. Clark Haggans, Porter’s fellow outside linebacker on the other side, left after the 2007 season. Their departures opened the door for James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley. Woodley spent seven seasons with the Steelers and racked up 57 sacks, which puts him fifth all-time in Steelers’ history. In 2008, he helped Pittsburgh win a Super Bowl.

Lawrence Timmons

2007-2016

Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons played for 10 years in Pittsburgh and started 126 games. He helped the Steelers win a Super Bowl in 2008 and an AFC Championship in 2010. Timmons made a Pro Bowl in 2014 and tallied 35.5 sacks and 12 interceptions in his time with the Steelers.

Lamarr Woodley tallied 57 sacks as a Steeler.
Lamarr Woodley tallied 57 sacks as a Steeler. | Source

Steelers Linebackers Single-Season Sack Records

Player
Sacks
Season
James Harrison
16
2008
Mike Merriweather
15
1984
Kevin Greene
14
1994
Lamarr Woodley
13.5
2009
Jason Gildon
13.5
2000

Do Stats Matter for Linebackers?

Football fans love stats. They are a great way to compare players, but they also give us more to argue about. But, when it comes to linebackers, do stats really matter? I think they sometimes do. Other times, you can throw them right out the window.

Sacks

For outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense, the ability to get the quarterback is an important skill. For these players, statistics like sacks and quarterback pressures matter. You want your outside pass rushers to get the job done, and sacks are the best indication of how often that is happening. They can also be a good indicator for how well the secondary is getting the job done. However, sacks were not officially counted by the NFL until 1982, so getting an accurate snapshot of historic players is sometimes tricky.

Tackles

Tackles are one of the most unreliable statistics in football. Not only is it tough to track them, but puzzling out what they mean for your team is often difficult. For example, if you have a free safety who leads your team in tackles, that might not be a good thing. The free safety is typically the last line of the defense, so if the opposing team is advancing the ball that far before they are stopped, you have a problem. On the other hand, the middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense should get a lot of chances to make tackles, as should the inside linebackers in a 3-4.

Interceptions

Interceptions are turnovers, so that alone makes them an important statistic. Linebackers don’t typically rack up a lot of interceptions, but the ones who do are assets to their teams. It shows they have a nose for the ball and are able to take advantage of opportunities. Linebackers in a 4-3 will typically get more shots at interceptions than those in a 3-4, as is evident when you look at the numbers for players like Jack Ham.

So, if stats aren’t always a good indication of what makes a good linebacker, what is? I think you have to look at the overall picture, not only considering the player’s individual performance but the performance of the defense as a whole. To a certain extent, good linebackers can make up for weaknesses elsewhere in a defense. However, weak linebackers usually mean a poor-performing defense.

The Legend of the Linebacker

All football players are tough, but linebackers are known as the toughest among the tough guys. While this reputation may be a little overstated, we need only look to players like Jack Lambert to see where it originated.

Lambert, along with guys like Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears, Ray Nitschke of the Green Bay Packers, and Mike Curtis of the Baltimore Colts, helped solidify the reputation of the middle linebacker as the hard-hitting, bad-tempered, tough-talking monster of the NFL.

But it may have been a 1960 television special called The Violent World of Sam Huff that first revealed the brutality of life as an NFL linebacker to the general public. Huff, who played for the New York Giants at the time, was the first player ever to have a microphone embedded in his uniform, and even today, the footage is eye-opening.

It is no surprise that a team like the Steelers who are known for great defense would also boast some of the best linebackers of all time. They played important roles in some of the Steelers' greatest victories. Some are in the Hall of Fame, and others will be soon.

Today, linebackers T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Vince Williams carry on the Steelers linebacker tradition. Only time will tell if they are able to follow in the footsteps of the great players who came before them.

Statistical Reference

Comments

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    • EricDockett profile imageAUTHOR

      Eric Dockett 

      3 months ago from USA

      Thanks Paul! Dirt Winston was a good one for sure! Robin Cole is another I considered adding.

      You're right about the two extra games per season. In some cases i agree it is important to consider when comparing players from different eras. However, since sacks weren't officially counted until 1982 anyway, it may not matter as much for players like Harrison. Definitely important for stats like interceptions though.

      According to my reference source (Pro Football Reference) Farrior has 731 solo tackles compared to Lake's 677. However, tackles have always been a tough stat to track, so I wouldn't be surprised if there are conflicting numbers.

    • PBinLostAngeles profile image

      Paul Burt 

      3 months ago from san pedro

      Excellent compilation and well written....

      However, per minutes played, Dennis Winston is not to be dismissed. Without Winston, Rams win the 79 Super Bowl; ask Ham or Lambert.

      Also, if you mentioned it I missed it and would so apologize, but I didn't see any notes regarding the fact Harrison - among others - had the advantage in opportunities as a result of the two extra regular season games on the schedule.

      Interesting too, if I'm not mistaken Carnell Lake from the SS position, is the franchise's all time leading tackler; no(?)

      Keep up the GREAT work!

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