No NFL team has enjoyed the consistent level of success the Pittsburgh Steelers have enjoyed since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. Over the past 50 years, the Steelers have tallied 36 winning seasons, 30 playoff qualifying seasons, 23 division titles, eight AFC titles and six Super Bowl titles. The first franchise to win three, four, and six Super Bowls, the Steelers are still the only franchise to claim back-to-back Super Bowls on two separate occasions.
Over that span, Pittsburgh employed some of the greatest players in pro football history. Many of those players have gone on to earn induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Several players that had Hall of Fame worthy careers but are still waiting for their place in Canton have earned their rightful place in the team's Hall of Honor, which was created by team president Art Rooney II in 2017.
With the start of the 2020 season just around the corner, we decided to create a Steelers all-time 53-man roster, a roster that would be capable of beating just about any other team in NFL history. While a few tough decisions had to be made, we feel that this roster includes most of the team's great players over the decades, particularly over the past half century.
Before we get started, here were the three toughest roster decisions I experienced when making the Steelers' all-time 53-man roster:
- Bradshaw above Big Ben on the depth chart: Bradshaw gets the nod over Big Ben largely for his ability to lead a starting offense that includes most of his teammates from the '70s. Bradshaw also calls his own plays, which could lead to some sizable in-game advantages. And while Roethlisberger did post one of the great game-winning drives in Super Bowl history, Bradshaw made his career out of making big plays in big games. A two-time Super Bowl MVP, Bradshaw threw the game-clinching touchdown in all four of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl wins during the '70s.
- Kordell Stewart over Ryan Shazier: While his career appears to have been cut short by injury, Shazier had established himself as one of the NFL's best inside linebackers midway through his fourth NFL season. He would have added valuable depth to Pittsburgh's roster at the inside linebacker position. I ultimately went with Stewart largely due to his versatility. Not only can he serve as an emergency quarterback, Stewart, nicknamed "Slash" for his ability to line up at numerous positions, can also be used at receiver, running back, punt/kick returner and even as a punter. Versatility like that made him an easy pick.
- Leaving T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick off the roster: While four current Steelers were able to make the cut, arguably the team's top two players from the 2019 season were left off the roster. Watt's biggest hurdle on the depth chart was Joey Porter, who spearheaded the Steelers' defense during their 2005 Super Bowl run. And while the free safety position may be its weakest unit, Fitzpatrick, an All-Pro last season, should play more than 14 games for Pittsburgh before he is added to any Steelers all-time roster. Watt should find his way onto this roster sooner rather than later, while Fitzpatrick, as long as he strings together a few more seasons like the one he posted in 2019, may eventually crack the roster, too.
Without further adieu, let's get started.
* denotes players that are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame
|RT||Larry Brown||Tunch Ilkin|
While it was Harris that was listed as Pittsburgh's fullback during the '70s, he would certainly be considered a running back in today's NFL, while Bleier, who was listed as a running back back then, would be utilized as a fullback. The second pair of teammates to each rush for over 1,000 yards in the same season, Harris and Bleier would be complemented by Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis, would would be called upon in short yardage situations. The Steelers' backfield would also include Le'Veon Bell, who made the cut over Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson, Willie Parker and Barry Foster. Bell's versatility (he holds the top-three most prolific receiving seasons by a running back in franchise history) ultimately led to his spot on the roster.
The top-two receiver spots to go Swann and Stallworth, arguably the best receiving duo in NFL history. The pair beautifully complemented each other during Pittsburgh's '70s Super Bowl runs, which the duo combining to catch 18 passes for 439 yards and five touchdowns in the Steelers' last two Super Bowl wins in the decade. Lining up in the slot beside Swann and Stallworth is Hines Ward, a former Super Bowl MVP as well as the team's all-time career leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Adding sensational depth to this group is Brown (the franchise's single season leader in catches, yards and touchdowns) along with Lipps (the team's best offensive weapon during the '80s) and Santonio Holmes, the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII. Just missing the cut is Yancey Thigpen, the team's best offensive player during their 1995 Super Bowl run.
The two tight end selections were easy choices. The starting spot went to none other than Heath Miller, who holds nearly every tight end franchise receiving record. The backup spot went to Hall of Famer and 2019 Hall of Honor inductee Elbie Nickel, a three-time Pro Bowler who led the NFL with a 24.3 yards per catch average during the 1949 season.
Pittsburgh's offensive line is anchored by four of the team's 1970s pillars in Jon Kolb, Sam Davis, Larry Brown (a 2019 Hall of Honor inductee) and Mike Webster, who is arguably the greatest center in NFL history. The only modern day lineman to crack the starting lineup is David DeCastro, a two-time All-Pro and Pro Bowler each of the past six years. His teammate, Maurkice Pouncey, and fellow center Dermontti Dawson are talented enough to play other positions on the offensive line if need be. The final two backup spots belong to Gerry Mullins (a starter on all four of the Steelers' '70s Super Bowl teams) and Tunch Ilkin, the team's best lineman during the '80s.
|RCB||Mel Blount*||Joe Haden||Carnell Lake|
|SS||Troy Polamalu*||Donnie Shell*||Carnell Lake|
Pittsburgh's defensive line includes three members of the team's "Steel Curtain" front: Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White. Despite coming down with pneumonia the week of the game, White started and recorded the first points of Pittsburgh's victory over Minnesota in Super Bowl IX. A six-time Pro Bowler, Greenwood's four sacks of Roger Staubach in Super Bowl X remains a Super Bowl record. The leader of the "Steel Curtain" defense, Greene, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is one of two players in franchise history who has had his jersey number retired by the team. The other player is Ernie Stautner, the franchise's best pre-dynasty player. The starters are backed up by 2000s standout Aaron Smith and Cam Heyward, Pittsburgh's current defensive captain who has lined up at both tackle and end during his career. The nose tackle position is anchored by Casey Hampton, one of the more underrated players during Pittsburgh's second Super Bowl era.
While they're loaded at other positions, Pittsburgh's greatest unit may indeed be at linebacker. Three of the unit's four starters are in the Hall of Fame, while Russell, a member of Pittsburgh's Hall of Honor, is arguably the team's best player (along with Greenwood) who has yet to earn induction in Canton. Lambert was tabbed as the NFL's best defensive player in 1976, while Ham is regarded as one of the greatest outside linebackers in league history. While Ham was used more for his tackling and pass coverage skills, Greene, who is third all-time in career sacks, would pick up the slack as far as pass rushing is concerned. Lloyd, his former teammate in Pittsburgh, would also be brought in in pass rushing situations, along with Harrision, the franchise's all-time career sack leader. Farrior (arguably the greatest free agent acquisition in franchise history) and Kirkland, a '90s standout who enjoyed a breakout performance in Super Bowl XXX, provide key depth on the inside.
Pittsburgh's secondary includes five Hall of Famers in Woodson, Blount, Polamalu, Jack Butler (a standout from the '50s) and Donnie Shell, who will become the fifth member of the Steel Curtain to be inducted in Canton in the summer of 2021. The unit also includes the versatile Carnell Lake, a key member of Pittsburgh's "Blitzburgh" defense who made the Pro Bowl at safety (his natural position) and cornerback following Rod Woodson's 1995 injury and free agent departure during the '97 offseason. And while Perry and Wagner are currently the team's free safeties, we may have to make room for Minkah Fitzpatrick, who earned All-Pro honors during his first season in Pittsburgh, sometime in the very near future. Fitzpatrick's teammate, cornerback Joe Haden, made the cut over Ike Taylor, J.T. Thomas, and Dwayne Woodruff.
A three-time Pro Bowler during his 13 years with the Steelers, Anderson's game-winning kick in overtime of Pittsburgh's 1989 wild-card win over Houston gave Chuck Noll his final playoff victory as the Steelers' head coach. The team's current punter, Berry has the highest franchise career average per punt. Warren won two Super Bowls during his 12 seasons as the team's long snapper, while Brown, Lipps and Holmes are a formidable return unit. Brown returned four punts and one kickoff return for scores during his nine seasons in Pittsburgh, while Lipps led the NFL in punt return yardage as a rookie before pacing the league with two punt returns for scores the following season. Holmes' 67-yard punt return for a score helped the Steelers defeat the Chargers in the divisional round of the 2008 playoffs.