The Greatest Steelers Linemen
Most children hate playing on the offensive line in organized football. Few 10-year-olds dream of toiling in obscurity until they commit a penalty and the referee announces their misdeed for all to hear. Kids dream of becoming the next Patrick Mahomes, or Saquon Barkley, or DeAndre Hopkins. They want to run with the ball, or throw or catch passes. Kids want to score touchdowns.
But if they stick with football into high school, some kids begin to see offensive line play for what it is. Offensive linemen are the unsung warriors in the trenches and the biggest, most powerful men on the field. There is honor to the position, in the hours spent in the weight room, in the work ethic, in the shared mission. The so-called skill positions may get the glory, but no team wins without a strong offensive line.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had some great running backs over the years, and they've had some dominant linemen that made those backs look even better. In this article, you'll read about the best guards, centers, and tackles ever to wear the black and gold.
What makes a great offensive lineman?
In some ways, it is tough to judge the effectiveness of offensive linemen as there aren't many stats that tell us how they are performing. You’d need to consistently watch a player at work over time in order to discern his overall skill and impact on the game. However, I think there are a few things we can look at to separate the great ones from the rest.
- Pro Bowls
- All-Pro Teams
- Years in the NFL / Games Played
- Contributions to winning teams
Here are the ten best offensive linemen in Steelers history.
10. Gerry Mullins
Mullins started at right guard in four Steelers Super Bowl victories. Back then, the Steelers were experts at running traps plays, which required quick, athletic guards, and Mullins was among the best. Mullins played in 124 games during his nine seasons in Pittsburgh. He started during fullback Franco Harris' best seasons, and helped him rush for more yards than any Steeler in team history. In 1976, Mullins helped pave the way for both Harris and halfback Rocky Bleier to run for more than 1,000 yards each.
Jersey Number: 72
Games Played: 124
4x Super Bowl champion
9. Jon Kolb
Kolb held down the left tackle position and protected Terry Bradshaw's blindside in four Super Bowls. Kolb and his fellow linemen were among the first in NFL history to tape up the sleeves on their jerseys, exposing their massive upper arms. They did it so defenders couldn't grab them as easily, but it had the secondary effect of letting opponents know how many hours they'd spent in the weight room.
Building strength through lifting weights is a requirement in the NFL today. The Steelers linemen of the '70s were trailblazers in the field of strength training. Kolb was known for his legendary power and even competed in the World's Strongest Man contests in 1978 and 1979. He never made a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro roster, but his work in the biggest games cements his place as one of the best Steelers linemen of all time.
Jersey Number: 55
Games Played: 177
4x Super Bowl champion
8. Tunch Ilkin
Ilkin's career spanned from the time just following the Steelers' last Super Bowl appearance of the '70s to just before their next Super Bowl appearance in the mid-'90s. Despite the team's lackluster performance during this time period, Ilkin was a great offensive tackle and a bright spot on Steelers teams that desperately needed one. He played for 13 seasons, and in his last season, he helped clear the way for running back Barry Foster to set the all-time team rushing record with 1,690 yards. Ilkin made two Pro Bowls in his career and went on to become a respected analyst covering the Steelers on TV and radio.
Jersey Number: 62
Games Played: 177
2x Pro Bowl
7. Marvel Smith
Smith helped protect a young Ben Roethlisberger and open holes for running backs Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis as the Steelers marched to a Super Bowl victory in 2005. The Steelers won another championship in 2008, but Smith missed the game due to injury. Over nine seasons, Smith played in 111 games and was part of some of the best o-lines in Steelers history. He made a Pro Bowl in 2004 and retired with two Super Bowl rings.
Jersey Number: 77
Games Played: 111
- 1x Pro Bowl
- 2x Super Bowl Champion
6. Jeff Hartings
In 1994, Jeff Hartings was part of an undefeated Penn State team that many fans felt deserved a National Championship. A decade later, Hartings finally won his championship as a critical player on the Steelers’ Super Bowl team of 2005. Along with great linemen like Marvel Smith and Alan Faneca, he helped halfback Willie Parker gain over 1,200 rushing yards during the regular season. Hartings spent the final six seasons of his career in Pittsburgh and made two Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team while playing in 90 games.
Jersey Number: 64
Games Played: 90
- 2x Pro Bowl
- 1x All-Pro
- 1x Super Bowl Champion
5. David DeCastro
DeCastro is a powerful and athletic offensive guard. He is one of the two current Steelers on this list and also the youngest. He came into the NFL in 2012 and became a starter in 2013. He has appeared in 112 games and made five straight Pro Bowls from 2015 to 2019. He was nominated to the All-Pro rosters in 2015 and 2017. DeCastro is possibly a future Hall-of-Famer and a player Steeler Nation would like to stick around for the rest of his career.
Jersey Number: 66
Games Played: 112
- 5x Pro Bowl
- 2x All-Pro
4. Maurkice Pouncey
Pouncey is an athletic center who made an immediate impact when he came into the NFL in 2010. He made a Pro Bowl his rookie year while anchoring an offensive line that helped the Steelers make it to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, Pouncey missed the game due to injury, and the Steelers lost. Pouncey has appeared in 121 games as a Steeler while making eight Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams.
Greatness runs in the Pouncey family. Maurkice’s twin brother Mike is the starting center for the Los Angeles Chargers and has made four Pro Bowls himself.
Jersey Number: 53
Games Played: 121
- 8x Pro Bowl
- 2x All-Pro
3. Dermontti Dawson
Dawson took the reins at center when All-Pro Mike Webster moved on to Kansas City in 1988. Dawson picked up right where Webster left off. He played in 184 games in his 13-year career and made seven Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams. Dawson and the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl in 1995 only to lose to the Dallas Cowboys. Still, he anchored an offensive line that helped Barry Foster run for 1,690 yards in 1992 and Jerome Bettis run for single-season totals of 1,665 (1997), 1,431 (1996), and 1,341 (2000) yards. Dawson was enshrined as one of the Steelers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the class of 2012.
Jersey Number: 63
Games Played: 184
- 7x Pro Bowl
- 6x All-Pro
- Pro Football Hall of Fame, class of 2012
2. Alan Faneca
It was tough choosing between Faneca and Dawson for the second spot. Both are legends among the greatest Steelers of all time. They have made the same number of Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams. Faneca played for ten seasons and 158 games compared to Dawson’s 13 seasons and 184 games. Only Dawson is in the Hall of Fame, but Faneca will be soon. Ultimately, it was Faneca’s contributions to the 2005 Super Bowl championship team that led me to rank him a notch higher, but it is very close.
After his time with the Steelers, Faneca went on to two more Pro Bowl seasons with the New York Jets. He ended his career widely regarded as one of the best offensive guards in NFL history.
Jersey Number: 66
Games Played: 158
- 7x Pro Bowl
- 6x All-Pro
- 1x Super Bowl Champion
1. Mike Webster
Webster came to the Steelers as part of the legendary 1974 draft class that also brought hall-of-fame wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as well as linebacker Jack Lambert. At the start of his career, he was an undersized center backing up veteran Ray Mansfield, and by the end he was a Hall-of-Famer and four-time Super Bowl champion. He was one of the best centers the NFL had ever seen and the greatest Steelers offensive lineman of all time.
Webster and his fellow linemen were pioneers of strength training, and his work ethic in the weight room played a significant role in his success and longevity. He earned the nickname “Iron Mike” for his ability to play through injury and never miss a start. He played in 220 games as a Steeler while making nine Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams. Webster was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the class of 1997.
Jersey Number: 52
Games Played: 220
- 9x Pro Bowl
- 5x All-Pro
- 4x Super Bowl Champion
- Pro Football Hall of Fame, class of 1997
Who Is the Best Steelers Offensive Lineman of All Time?
Mike Webster is the best Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman of all time and one of the greatest centers ever to play in the NFL. He was a member of four Steelers Super Bowl championship teams and a starter on two of them. Webster came into his own in the late 1970s and made nine Pro Bowls and five All-Pro rosters between 1978 and 1987. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
Here are a few Steeler greats who didn't quite make the main list:
4x Pro Bowl
2x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro
2x Pro Bowl
1x Pro Bowl
1x Pro Bowl
2x Pro Bowl
Positions and Duties on the O-Line
Five positions make up the offensive line: center, left and right guard, and left and right tackle. While players at each position may appear to share similar attributes when it comes to size, strength, and speed, that wasn’t always so. Even in today’s NFL, every position has a different duty and skill requirement.
The center is the leader of the offensive line who lets the other linemen know their assignments. If you listen closely while watching a game, you can hear him making calls before the snap. The center has to be smart but also powerful, as he is often required to take on the defensive nose tackle, the largest and most powerful player on the defensive line.
Best Steelers Centers of All Time
- Mike Webster
- Dermontti Dawson
- Maurkice Pouncey
There are two guards, one on each side of the center. In the past, guards were considered the best athletes on the offensive line. They had to run a lot, and they had to be quick enough to get out ahead of running backs on sweeps and trap plays. In today’s NFL, guards are still great athletes, but they rarely have to hustle like the guards from the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Best Steelers Guards of All Time
- Alan Faneca
- David DeCastro
- Gerry Mullins
- Sam Davis
- Carlton Haselrig
The tackles line up outside of the guards, and there are two of them. Historically, they were the biggest, strongest offensive linemen, but these days everyone is big and strong. Both tackles must be able to pass block and run block well, as should all players on the offensive. However, the tackle who plays on the quarterback’s blindside must be an exceptionally skilled pass blocker.
Best Steelers Tackles of All Time
- Marvel Smith
- Tunch Ilkin
- Jon Kolb
- Larry Brown
- Alejandro Villanueva
Best Offensive Lines in Steelers History
There is no greater achievement for an offensive line than to plow a path to a championship for their team. The Pittsburgh Steelers have played in eight Super Bowls in their storied franchise history and won six of them. Every Steelers team that made it to the Super Bowl did so in part due to a dominant offensive line. Yes, great Steelers running backs like Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, and Willie Parker got a lot of the glory, but none of them would have made it very far without the o-lines that blocked for them.
Here are the best Steelers offensive lines in history and the linemen who started in eight Super Bowls.
Steelers Super Bowl Starting Linemen
|Super Bowl||Season||L. Tackle||L. Guard||Center||R. Guard||R. Tackle|
The Biggest Players in the NFL
Believe it or not, there was a time when a man weighing as little as 220 pounds could play on the offensive line in the NFL. In today’s NFL, many wide receivers weigh more than that.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, guards and tackles weighing 250 to 270 pounds were common. Back then, a player weighing in at 300 pounds or more was rare. In fact, in 1985, Chicago Bears defensive tackle William Perry was nicknamed "The Refrigerator " due to his tremendous size (somewhere between 310 and 335 pounds).
Things began to change in the ‘90s. These days, an o-lineman weighing less than 300 pounds is rare. In 2019, the Steelers had eleven players listed at 300 pounds or more. The heaviest was offensive guard Zach Banner, who tipped the scales at a stunning 360 pounds.
You may think that these guys are just enormous doorstops, but the offensive linemen of today are incredible athletes despite their size. Advancements in training and nutritional programs mean bigger, stronger, faster athletes every year.
Here is a look at how size requirements on the offensive line have changed over the decades. Listed below are Steelers Pro Bowl lineman from different eras.
Steelers Pro Bowl Lineman Size Comparison
The Strongest Players in the NFL
Offensive linemen are big, but size alone isn’t enough to make it in the NFL. Without the necessary strength, a 300-pound lineman amounts to little more than a minor inconvenience the defense simply needs to roll out of their way. But NFL linemen aren’t just big; they are incredibly strong as well.
The level of strength exhibited by these professional athletes is something we mere mortals might have trouble comprehending. For example, at the NFL Scouting Combine that is held every year before the draft, up-and-coming players are tested in their bench-press strength. NFL scouts want to know how many times a player can bench press 225 pounds. This test is easier than trying to find out their maximal lifts, and less likely to cause injury.
For the average gym-goer, bench pressing 225 pounds even once is a good goal. Lifters who can press it 10 or 15 times are relatively strong by casual gym standards. That’s not good enough for the NFL. For example, Steelers offensive guard David DeCastro bench pressed 225 for 34 reps during his Scouting Combine in 2012. That’s impressive, but some players manage to get 40 reps or more.
When their maximum strength is tested, many NFL linemen can bench press 500 pounds or more.That was true of the Steelers linemen back in the’70s as well as today. The NFL is a league of physical freaks, and the offensive linemen are the heavyweight gladiators of the bunch.
Here is a look at some of the current and former Steelers linemen’s combine results in the 225 test:
Steelers Linemen 225 Test Results
|Player||Position||Combine Year||225 Reps|
The Future of the Offensive Line
The Pittsburgh Steelers have fielded some of the best offensive linemen in NFL history. Pro Bowls and All-Pro nominations only tell part of the story. Steelers championship history and their ability to dominate the running game both paint a picture of a team culture that values quality offensive linemen.
It’s an odd coincidence that the modern-day Steelers, who throw the football more than any other time in team history, also have three of the greatest Steelers linemen of all time starting together. It is easy to imagine that Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Alejandro Villanueva would have been right at home with the Steelers of the 1970s.
What does the future hold for the offensive line in the NFL? When the Steelers won their first Super Bowl, players weighing around 250 pounds could succeed as NFL offensive linemen. What they lacked in mass (compared to players of today) they made up for in quickness and agility. The Steelers' legendary trap plays of the ‘70s sprung Franco Harris for a lot of yards, and they were made possible by the athleticism of the offensive line.
The scary thing is, the gigantic offensive linemen of today—many of whom weigh in closer to 350 than 250—still have tremendous speed and agility for their size. Will we one day see 400-pound offensive linemen in the NFL?
It would be fun to watch for football fans, but no doubt terrifying for NFL defenses.