Best Pittsburgh Steelers Defensive Players of All Time

Updated on January 23, 2020
Linebacker James Harrison is one of the best defensive players in Steelers' history.
Linebacker James Harrison is one of the best defensive players in Steelers' history. | Source

There are two ways to win a football game: score more points than your opponent or prevent them from scoring more points than you. For the last fifty years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have excelled at the latter.

During the ‘70s, the Steelers' Steel Curtain defense was a 4-3 scheme with a dominant front four, three athletic linebackers, and hard-hitting defensive backs. The ‘90s ushered in the Blitzburgh era, marked by hyper-aggressive linebackers who relentlessly ran down quarterbacks. During the Super Bowl years of the mid-2000s, the addition of a roving, tenacious, strong safety made the Steelers defense even more dangerous.

The Steelers defense has ranked in the top five for points allowed in a season 18 times since 1972. During that same period, Pittsburgh has won six Super Bowls and eight AFC Championships. Even during the pre-Super Bowl era, when the Steelers rarely posted a winning season, they still fielded powerful defenses. In 1957, the Steelers ranked first in the NFL for yards allowed and second for points allowed.

Choosing the Top Defenders in Steelers History

The players on this list are the best Steelers defensive players of all time. They made the cut based on:

  • their dominance during the time in which they played,
  • stats and accolades,
  • contributions to championships,
  • overall value to the Steelers organization.

Ultimately, these players on this list are not only the greatest defensive players in Pittsburgh Steeler franchise history, but also some of the best the NFL has ever seen.

10. Jack Butler

Defensive Back, 1951-1959

Today, Jack Butler is somewhat of an unsung hero from pre-Super-Bowl-era Steelers lore. While it is true that the franchise struggled through most of its early history, there were bright spots and a few superstars, and Butler was one of them.

In nine seasons, he intercepted an impressive 52 passes and took four of them back for touchdowns. He ranks second in franchise history for career interceptions, behind only Mel Blount. He made four Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams even though the Steelers could only put together two winning seasons during Butler’s tenure.

Butler finally joined other great Steelers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he was enshrined with the class of 2012, more than fifty years after his retirement from the NFL. He is an all-time Steelers great from a time when greatness was hard to come by.

Jersey Number: 80

Accolades

  • 4 Pro Bowls
  • 3 All-Pro Selections
  • Hall of Fame Class of 2012

Stats

  • 9 Seasons
  • 104 Games
  • 52 Interceptions for 827 yards and 4 TDs
  • 10 Fumble Recoveries for 38 yards and 1 TD

9. Kevin Greene

Linebacker, 1993-1995

It is tough to decide where Kevin Greene should rank among the best Steelers defensive players. He is a Hall of Famer and one of the top linebackers of all time, a pass-rushing machine with a nonstop motor. He played opposite fellow outside linebacker Greg Lloyd in an aggressive 3-4 defense, and the pair pummelled quarterbacks for three amazing seasons in Pittsburgh. Greene’s time in the Steel City culminated in a trip to Super Bowl XXX, an achievement he played no small part in.

On the other hand, he only spent three seasons in Pittsburgh before moving on to the Carolina Panthers after the Super Bowl season of 1995. For that reason alone, it seems unfair to rank him higher than other Steelers greats who spent all or most of their careers in the black and gold. Greene is one of those players that Steeler Nation sure would have liked to have stuck around longer.

Jersey Number: 91

Accolades

  • 2 Pro Bowls
  • 1 All-Pro Selection
  • Hall of Fame Class of 2016

Stats

  • 3 Seasons
  • 48 Games
  • 35.5 Sacks
  • 1 Interception
  • 6 Fumble Recoveries

8. Ernie Stautner

Defensive Tackle, 1950-1963

Like Jack Butler, Ernie Stautner was a Hall-of-Fame-caliber defensive player during an era when the Steelers rarely posted a winning season. Undersized at only 230 pounds, he made up for it with toughness and tenacity. Thanks to his gritty style of play, Stautner and players like him began to cultivate the reputation for tough, hard-hitting defensive football that the Steelers are still known for today.

Stautner made the Pro Bowl roster nine times and the All-Pro team once in his 14-year career. In 1964 the Steelers retired his No. 70 jersey. For a long time, he was the only player in Steeler franchise history to have his jersey retired by the franchise, though Joe Greene joined him in that honor in 2014. Ernie Stautner was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the class of 1969.

Jersey Number: 70

Accolades

  • 9 Pro Bowls
  • 1 All-Pro Selection
  • Hall of Fame Class of 1969

Stats

  • 14 Seasons
  • 173 Games
  • 2 Interceptions
  • 23 Fumble Recoveries
  • 3 Safeties

7. Mel Blount

Cornerback, 1970-1983

Mel Blount was one of the toughest cornerbacks of his era. At 6’3” tall, he towered over most wide receivers and his physical playing style fit in perfectly with Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense. Blount’s aggressive abuse of receivers eventually led to a rule change and today, defensive backs are no longer allowed to contact receivers more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Blount played 200 games as a Steeler, intercepted 57 passes, and made five Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams. In 1975, he earned the award for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and throughout the ‘70s, he helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls. Blount was enshrined in the Hall of Fame with the class of 1989.

Jersey Number: 47

Accolades

  • 5 Pro Bowls
  • 2 All-Pro Selections
  • 4 Super Bowl Championships
  • 1975 Defensive Player of the Year
  • Hall of Fame Class of 1989

Stats

  • 14 Seasons
  • 200 Games
  • 57 Interceptions for 736 yards and 2 TDs
  • 13 Fumble Recoveries, 2 TDs

6. James Harrison

Linebacker, 2002-2012; 2014-2017

Linebacker James Harrison chased down quarterbacks for 14 seasons with the Steelers. He is the franchise’s all-time leading pass rusher with 80.5 sacks, and he played a major role in two Super Bowl championships. He made five Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams during 177 games as a Steeler and he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008. Harrison's 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII set a Super Bowl record and helped solidify one of the biggest wins in Steelers' history.

Harrison took the long road to NFL stardom and struggled to make the roster with both the Steelers and Ravens as a young player. He spent some time with the Rheine Fire of NFL Europe before returning to the Steelers and eventually becoming a full-time starter in 2007. The rest is history, as Harrison went on to become one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the NFL and a major problem for any offensive coordinator that faced the Steelers.

Jersey Number: 92

Accolades

  • 5 Pro Bowls
  • 2 All-Pro Selections
  • 2 Super Bowl Championships
  • 2008 Defensive Player of the Year

Stats

  • 14 Seasons
  • 177 Games
  • 80.5 Sacks
  • 7 Interceptions for 86 yards
  • 8 Fumble Recoveries

James Harrison (92) is the Steelers' All-Time sack leader.
James Harrison (92) is the Steelers' All-Time sack leader. | Source

5. Rod Woodson

Cornerback, 1987-1996

Woodson was a cornerback and return man with blazing speed. Drafted by the Steelers in 1987, he made his first of six straight Pro Bowls in 1989. In 10 seasons as a Steeler, he made a total of seven Pro Bowls and was voted an All-Pro five times. He intercepted 38 passes and returned five for touchdowns. Woodson was awarded the Defensive Player of the Year in 1993.

As a return man, Woodson ran back two kicks and two punts for scores during his time with the Steelers. He was a star player during a time when the Steelers had few and a scoring threat any time he got his hands on the ball. Because of Woodson and other players in the early ‘90s, the Steelers were able to return to their former glory and make the playoffs under new head coach Bill Cowher. Woodson missed the 1995 regular season with a knee injury but still managed to play in the Super Bowl that year. Woodson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.

Jersey Number: 26

Accolades

  • 7 Pro Bowls
  • 5 All-Pro Selections
  • 1993 Defensive Player of the Year
  • Hall of Fame Class of 2009

Stats

  • Seasons 10
  • 134 Games
  • 38 Interceptions for 779 Yards and 5 TDs
  • 22 Fumbles Recovered for 1 TD
  • 257 Punt Returns for 2,362 Yards and 2 TDs
  • 220 Kick Returns for 4,894 Yards and 2 TDs

4. Jack Ham

Linebacker, 1971-1982

Jack Ham was not only the best outside linebacker ever to put on a Steelers uniform, but he was also one of the best in NFL history. He came to the Steelers in 1971 as part of a draft class that included safety Mike Wagner and defensive tackle Ernie Holmes, two more defensive stars who, along with Ham, would lead the team to four of the Steelers' Super Bowl championships.

Ham made eight straight Pro Bowls and six straight All-Pro teams in his 12 seasons with the Steelers. He was an excellent all-around athlete with the strength to handle blockers, the speed to cover running backs, and the intelligence to make the right decisions. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the class of 1988.

Jersey Number: 59

Accolades

  • 8 Pro Bowls
  • 6 All-Pro Selections
  • 4 Super Bowl Championships
  • Hall of Fame Class of 1988

Stats

  • 12 Seasons
  • 162 Games
  • 32 Interceptions for 218 yards and 1 TD
  • 21 Fumble Recoveries for 1 TD
  • 3 Sacks

3. Troy Polamalu

Safety, 2003-2014

As a Steelers fan, it is fun to imagine how much sleep offensive coordinators must have lost during the nights before facing Troy Polamalu and the Pittsburgh defense. While the Pittsburgh pass rush and run defense were highly ranked in the mid-2000s, Troy Polamalu was the heart and soul of the defense.

Polamalu was an unpredictable terror with the freedom to make made bold decisions that offenses often didn’t expect. In his prime, he seemed to be everywhere at once and there was little an opposing quarterback could do to avoid him. During 12 seasons, he helped the Steelers with two Super Bowls and three AFC Championships. He made eight Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams and was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2010. He intercepted 32 passes, recovered seven fumbles, and in 158 games, he scored five defensive touchdowns.

Jersey Number: 43

Accolades

  • 8 Pro Bowls
  • 4 All-Pro Selections
  • 2010 Defensive Player of the Year
  • 2 Super Bowl Championships

Stats

  • 12 Seasons
  • 158 Games
  • 32 Interceptions for 398 Yards and 3 TDs
  • 7 Fumbles Recovered for 2 TD
  • 12 Sacks

Troy Polamalu (43) is one of the best defensive players in Steelers history.
Troy Polamalu (43) is one of the best defensive players in Steelers history. | Source

2. Jack Lambert

Linebacker, 1974-1984

As a rookie, Jack Lambert filled in at middle linebacker when starter Henry Davis got injured. Davis never got his job back. Lambert earned Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1974 and Defensive Player of the Year in 1976. Throughout 11 seasons, he made nine Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams.

Lambert was a terrifying presence, with missing front teeth and a perpetual scowl on his face. He wore huge shoulder pads with a neck roll, and at nearly 6’4” he loomed over quarterbacks before the snap like a dark, menacing storm cloud. In reality, he was an undersized linebacker even for his era. Though listed at 220 pounds, according to some accounts he was much lighter.

It didn’t matter. Lambert was ferocious on the field and seemed to treat every play like a street fight. He set the tone for an unforgiving Pittsburgh defense that won four Super Bowl championships. Today he is regarded as one of the best middle linebackers ever to play the game.

Lambert was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the class of 1990.

Jersey Number: 58

Accolades

  • 9 Pro Bowls
  • 6 All-Pro Selections
  • 1974 Defensive Rookie of the Year
  • 1976 Defensive Player of the Year
  • 4 Super Bowl Championships
  • Hall of Fame Class of 1990

Stats

  • 11 Seasons
  • 146 Games
  • 28 Interceptions for 243 Yards
  • 17 Fumble Recoveries
  • 8 Sacks

1. Joe Greene

Defensive Tackle, 1969-1981

Though it might be hard to imagine today, the years before to the arrival of head coach Chuck Noll in 1969 were dark days for the Pittsburgh Steelers. With the exception of a few years here and there, for the better part of four decades, the Steelers were rarely able to cobble together a winning season.

In 1969, Noll drafted a defensive tackle named Joe Greene and the tide began to turn. Greene was named Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 1969, and the Steelers continued to draft well over the next few years. By 1972, the Steelers had their first winning season since 1963 and defeated the Oakland Raiders for the franchise’s first-ever playoff win. In 1974, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl.

The Steelers won three more Super Bowls during the 1970s and are widely considered the Team of the Decade. Today, Pittsburgh is one of the most successful NFL franchises in history. It all started with Joe Greene.

“Mean” Joe Greene played for 13 seasons in Pittsburgh. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1972 and 1974 and he made an amazing 10 Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams. Greene was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2014, he joined Ernie Stautner as one of the two Steelers ever to have their jersey numbers officially retired by the organization.

Jersey Number: 75

Accolades

  • 10 Pro Bowls
  • 4 All-Pro Selections
  • 1969 Defensive Rookie of the Year
  • 1972 Defensive Player of the Year
  • 1974 Defensive Player of the Year
  • 4 Super Bowl Championships
  • Hall of Fame Class of 1987

Stats

  • 13 Seasons
  • 181 Games
  • 1 Interception for 26 Yards
  • 1 Fumble Recovery

Who is the best Steelers defensive player of all time?

Joe Greene is the greatest Pittsburgh Steelers player of all time and regarded as one of the best defensive tackles ever to play in the NFL. He made more Pro Bowls than any other Steeler in history and earned Defensive Player of the Year twice. He was a hard-nosed player who didn’t tolerate losing and set the tone for the Steel Curtain defense.

Honorable Mentions

L.C. Greenwood

Defensive End, 1969-1981

Greenwood arrived in Pittsburgh with the 1969 draft, the same year as Joe Greene. The pair lined up alongside each other from 1969-1981 and made up half of the original Steel Curtain defensive line. Greenwood made six Pro Bowls and two All-Pro rosters. Many Steelers fans believe he deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Donnie Shell

Safety, 1974-1987

Shell is another old-school Steeler who deserves consideration for the Hall of Fame. He helped win four Super Bowls and intercepted 51 passes in his 14-year career. He made the Pro Bowl five times and All-Pro twice.

Greg Lloyd

Linebacker, 1988-1997

Lloyd was an intimidating linebacker with a bad on-field attitude who would have fit in perfectly with the Steelers of the 1970s. He made five Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams as a Steeler and racked up a total of 53.4 sacks. Lloyd helped the Steelers make it back to the Super Bowl in 1995 where they lost to the Dallas Cowboys.

Jason Gildon

Linebacker, 1994-2003

Gildon’s 77 career sacks rank him second behind James Harrison in franchise history. He was a prototypical Steelers pass rusher who made three Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team during his time in Pittsburgh.

Carnell Lake

Defensive Back, 1989-1998

Lake was a linebacker in college who became a Pro-Bowl safety in the NFL. He had an All-Pro season at cornerback as well when Steelers cornerback Rod Woodson suffered a knee injury and Coach Bill Cowher asked Lake to fill in. During his time in Pittsburgh, Lake made the Pro Bowl four times and All-Pro once.

Joey Porter

Linebacker, 1999-2006

Porter was an aggressive pass rusher who tallied 60 sacks during his eight years as a Steeler, putting him third in team history. He made three Pro Bowls and one All-Pro roster as Steeler and helped Pittsburgh win a Super Bowl in 2005.

Joey Porter was a hard-charging outside linebacker who player with a ton of heart.
Joey Porter was a hard-charging outside linebacker who player with a ton of heart. | Source

Steelers All-Time Sacks Leaders

Player
Sacks
Years Played
James Harrison
80.5
2002-2017
Jason Gildon
77
1994-2003
Joey Porter
60
1999-2006
Keith Willis
59
1982-1991
LaMarr Woodley
57
2007-2016
Note: Sacks were not officially counted by the NFL before 1982. That means great Steelers pass rushers of the '70s like Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood aren't eligible for this list.

Pittsburgh Steelers Defensive Records

Interceptions All-Time

57 - Mel Blount (1970-1983)

Interceptions in a Season

11- Mel Blount (1975)

Sacks All-Time

80.5 James Harrison (2002-2017)

Sacks in a Season

16 - James Harrison (2008)

Safeties All-Time

3 - Ernie Stautner (1950-1963); Bill McPeak (1949-1957)

Steelers All-Time Interception Leaders

Player
Interceptions
Yards
Touchdowns
Years Played
Mel Blount
57
736
2
1970-1983
Jack Butler
52
827
4
1951-1959
Donnie Shell
51
490
2
1974-1987
Rod Woodson
38
779
5
1987-1996
Dwayne Woodruff
37
689
3
1979-1990

What Was the Steel Curtain?

Most Steelers fans have heard about the Steel Curtain defense. It has become a term practically synonymous with Pittsburgh football, but it is occasionally misused and misunderstood. The era of the Steel Curtain was a specific time period in the 1970s, and while it is poetic to use the term for modern Steelers defenses, it really isn't accurate.

The Steel Curtain often is used to refer to the entire Steelers defense of the '70s Super Bowl period, a definition that is acceptable in the eyes of most Steelers fans. However, Steelers sticklers will tell you the term Steel Curtain refers only to the front four defensive linemen.

Who Were the Original Steel Curtain?

  • L.C. Greenwood: Defensive End
  • Joe Greene: Defensive Tackle
  • Ernie Holmes: Defensive Tackle
  • Dwight White: Defensive End

These four players teamed up from 1971-1977, making for one of the greatest defensive lines in NFL history. Holmes left the team in '77 and was replaced by defensive tackles John Banaszak, Gary Dunn, and Steve Furness for the final two Super Bowls championships of the era.

Top-Ranked Steelers Defenses

Season
Points Allowed Rank
Yards Allowed Rank
Defensive Coordinator
1974
2
1
Bud Carson
1976
1
1
Bud Carson
1978
1
3
George Perles
1990
3
1
Dave Brazil
2001
3
1
Tim Lewis
2004
1
1
Dick LeBeau
2007
2
1
Dick LeBeau
2008
1
1
Dick LeBeau
2010
1
2
Dick LeBeau
2011
1
1
Dick LeBeau
2012
6
1
Dick LeBeau
Pittsburgh defenses ranked #1 in either points allowed or yards allowed during the Super Bowl era.
The Steelers defense of the mid-2000s helped win two Super Bowls.
The Steelers defense of the mid-2000s helped win two Super Bowls. | Source

Defense Wins Championships

They say that defense wins championships, but this may no longer be true in the modern NFL. I'm not convinced an NFL team can win a Super Bowl today without a great quarterback and a powerful offense. Even the best defenses struggle to contain the top-level, high-scoring offenses in the modern-era NFL.

But if you do happen to have a great quarterback and an offense capable of putting four touchdowns on the board every game, a strong defense can still make a big difference. Games in today's NFL are often battles of attrition, and stopping your opponent from scoring more points than you is still a valid game plan.

The Steelers of the '70s stopped offenses in their tracks with a tenacious front four called the Steel Curtain. Blitzburgh of the '90s relentlessly chased down quarterbacks. The Steelers defense of the mid-2000s confused opponents with a ferocious pass rush and an unpredictable all-pro strong safety.

The Steelers of today still play great defense...maybe even championship caliber. But without an offense that can put points on the board, they may never achieve what their predecessors had.

Time will tell. The NFL is always changing, and defenses today have more to worry about than any other time in the history of the league.

Stats and Reference:

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