´ Steel Curtain Rising: Pittsburgh Steelers All Time Free Agent Defense

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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Pittsburgh Steelers All Time Free Agent Defense

Defense defined the Steelers two Super Bowl eras as well as its perennial contender status in the 1990’s. Steelers Nation takes pride in its defense and even prouder of the fact that stalwarts like Greg Lloyd, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, James Harrison, and Troy Polamalu were home grown.

Since 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted exceptionally well on defense.

But the franchise has eagerly welcomed free agents whenever it saw a chance to galvanize units that have set the NFL standard for excellence in defensive football.

With that said, filling out the Steelers All Time Free Agent Offensive team was easier than choosing its defensive counterpart. Nonetheless, the Steelers can field an All Time Defensive squad and here is that selection and, in fact, one can argue that the Steelers three biggest impact free agent signings have come on defense.

To be eligible to make this list, the player must have been an unrestricted free agent prior to joining the Steelers – unrestricted rookie free agents are not eligible, having been duly recognized in a previous edition of the Colbert Record. (Click here for part I, the Pittsburgh Steelers All Time Free Agent Offense)

The Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Free Agent Defense:
(Click on the highlighted titles to go directly to position area)

Defensive End – Ray Seals
Nose Tackle - Kimo von Oelhoffen
Defensive End – Travis Kirschke
Outside Linebacker - Kevin Greene
Inside Linebacker - James Farrior
Inside Linebacker - Keyaron Fox
Outside Linebacker - Chad Brown
Cornerback - Dewayne Washington
Cornerback - Randy Fuller
Strong Safety - Brent Alexander
Free Safety - Ryan Clark

Steelers All Time Free Agents: Defensive Ends

Ray Seals
The original Steel Curtain was home grown. As were the biggest stars on the 1990’s Steelers squads. Likewise so was the trio that led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl’s XLIII.

But free agents have played a role in the defensive lines that manned all four of the Steelers Super Bowl runs of the Post-Noll era.In fact, one of those injected “60 Minute Men” into the lingua franca of Steelers Nation. That man would be Ray Seals.

When the free agent signing period started in 1994, Steelers Nation clamored for the Dallas Cowboy stars Alvin Harper and Darryl Johnson.

They instead signed Ray Seals from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who made an immediate impact, registering 7 sacks in his first year – only two less than the combined 1993 total of his predecessors Donald Evans and Kenny Davidson.

Seals sacked the quarterback 8 times for an encore in 1995 and kept his head in the game throughout the season that saw him lose his cousin Sam Gamgee who was suspiciously killed during a routine police stop in Brentwood.

Sadly, Seals tore his rotator cuff during the 1996 preseason, and never played another down in Pittsburgh.

Travis Kirschke
The only other free agent defensive end of note for the Steelers was Travis Kirschke, whom Kevin Colbert brought in from Detroit (after a stint in San Fran) in 2004.

Krischke played for the Steelers until 2009. During that time he made appeared in 92 games, made 18 starts, registering 9 sacks and recovering 2 fumbles. All in all, Travis Kirschke proved to be a capable back up.

Honorable Mention:  Nick Eason, Nolan Harrison

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Steelers All Time Free Agents: Nose Tackle

Kimo von Oelhoffen
Kimo von Oelhoffen earned his claim to fame making a run as the Steelers starting Steelers defensive end that began in 2001 and ended in Super Bowl XL.

However, his first season in Pittsburgh was spent as a nose tackle. During that season von Oelhoffen didn’t put up a lot of gaudy statistics, but he did cog up the center of a defense that finished 7th in the NFL and did not allow a touchdown during a five game stretch at mid-season.

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Steelers All Time Free Agents: Outside Linebackers

Kevin Greene
The 1993 off season brought free agency to the NFL for the first time, and many fans and most of the media thought that the Steelers would sit idly. And while the Steelers did decline to enter into bidding wars Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney quietly went out and made a big splash in the form of Kevin Greene.
  • They didn’t start calling it Blitzburgh until Greene arrived and with good reason.
From 1993 to 1995 the Steelers absolutely terrorized NFL quarterbacks, with Greene registering 35.5 sacks alone in just a three year period.

After Super Bowl XXX, the Steelers let Greene go in favor of Jason Gildon, which was a mistake, as Greene played for four more years and added another 41.5 sacks to his career total. Still, for a long time Greene held the title as the Steelers biggest impact free agent signing.

Chad Brown
Playing opposite him is Chad Brown. Brown of course was drafted by the Steelers in 1993 and departed via free agency after the 1996 season.

Tom Donahoe, who while doing a lot of good things as Steelers Director of Football Operations, took a very parochial view to departed free agents, much they way a high school coach might approach players who quit mid season only to want back later.

Once you left as a free agent, Tom Donahoe made it clear you would never be welcomed back.

Fortunately, and wisely, Kevin Colbert has a different attitude, and ten years later the Steelers would turn to him again in 2006 when injuries depleted the linebacking crops. Brown didn’t get a start, but did register a sack and he earns his spot on Steelers all time free agent defense as a celebration of Colbert's "you can come home again" philosophy as much as anything else.

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Steelers All Time Free Agents: Inside Linebacker

James Farrior
Headlining the Steelers all time free agent inside linebacker list is James Farrior. Farrior was drafted as an outside linebacker by Bill Parcells and the New York Jets in 1997 and played well, but not spectacularly.

But Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher saw see that Farrior could do more, and they signed him in 2002 as the Steelers inside linebacker. For the next ten years Farrior played fearlessly, only missing six games to injury and functioning as the “quarterback” of the defense.

He may not have gotten the attention and praise heaped upon players like James Harrison, Joey Porter, and Troy Polmalu but James Farrior was a veritable one-man wrecking crew in the middle of the defense:
  • registering 30 sacks
  • intercepting 8 balls
  • scoring one touchdown
  • defending 61 passes
  • forcing 12 fumbles and recovering 10
Beyond these on the field achievements, Farrior was a locker room leader, and by all accounts his presence was missed in 2012.

Keyaron Fox
Farrior’s compatriot at inside linebacker pales in comparison, and is arguably the weakest member of the unit. The Steelers signed Keyaron Fox in 2008 to play on special teams and provide depth at linebacker.

While most fans remember him for his egregious  penalty at the end of Super Bowl XLV, Fox played fairly well during his first two years in Pittsburgh. Fox even started 4 games in 2009, pushed Lawrence Timmons for playing time an had an incredible, tell your grandkids about it, 84 yard pick six vs. the Brett Favre led Minnesota Vikings.

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Steelers All Time Free Agents: Cornerbacks

Dewayne Washington
After the 1996 season Tom Donahoe concluded that Rod Woodson’s Hall of Fame caliber games were behind him and figured he could upgrade the position by letting Woodson go and replacing him with Donnell Woolford and by drafting Chad Scott.

Donahoe was of course wrong about Rod Woodson, but sorely mistaken about Woolford. As a result the Steelers had no choice but to go back out into the free agent market and sign Dewayne Washington.

Washington, like Ike Taylor, was known more for the interceptions that he dropped as opposed to the ones he caught save for a late season victory over Jacksonville in 1998 where he ended and closed the scoring with pick sixes. (Incidentally, that was the last great win of the Cowher-Donahoe era.)

Washington played with the Steelers for six years, providing serviceable coverage at cornerback.

Randy Fuller
The Steelers brought Randy Fuller as a fourth or even 5th cornerback in 1995 after Fuller had been cut by the Denver Broncos. That move gave Fuller the good fortune to be in exactly the right place at the pivotal moment of the Steelers Cowher-Donahoe era:

Fuller had one task he had to accomplish and he had a nanosecond to to it in. Even then it was touch and go.
  • But Randy Fuller achieved the one task he had to achieve for Pittsburgh.
The Steelers went to Super Bowl XXX as a result. That alone earns him a spot on this list. Watch the video to relive the moment (Available as of 3/3/13 – its 10 minutes. Watch the whole thing. Come on... You know you want to….)

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Steelers All Time Free Agents: Strong Safety

Brent Alexander
By 1998 Carnell Lake was on the downside of his career, and the Steelers let him go, replacing him with Travis Davis. Davis turned out to be a worse replacement for Lake than Woolford had been for Woodson.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first orders of business upon arriving in 2000 was to fix that, and he did so by signing Brett Alexander.

Pittsburgh was good for Brent Alexander, and Brent Alexander was good for Pittsburgh making 64 straight starts at free safety during which he intercepted 15 passes, sacked the quarterback 5.5 times, and forced three fumbles.

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Steelers All Time Free Agents: Free Safety

Ryan Clark
Chris Hope’s departure for Tennessee following Super Bowl XL left a void in the Steelers secondary. To fill it, the Steelers signed Ryan Clark.

At time the conventional wisdom held that Steelers were getting a veteran with serviceable skills who would fill the position while a younger player, such as Anthony Smith, developed into a starter.

The conventional wisdom could not have been more wrong. Ryan Clark has started for seven straight years in Pittsburgh and developed into one of the NFL’s most underrated players.

Ryan Clark’s 10 interceptions, 2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 5 fumble recoveries in seven years as a starter are respectable, but they don’t convey his full value to the team. Ryan Clark is a vocal leader both on and off the field. His aggressive, hard hitting style sets the tone for the entire defense. He’s always around the ball and steps up when the game is on the line.

Perhaps value is best measured by his the play of the defense in his absence. Clark suffers from the sickle cell trait which prevents him from playing in Denver. In fact, when Clark fell injured in Denver 2007, the Steelers were unable to hold a lead in his absence.

The same story repeated itself at other moments in the 2007 season in the playoffs vs. Jacksonville. The Ryan Clarkless defense have also seen leads slip away in Denver to the likes of Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning. This is no coincidence.

Honorable Mention:  Mike Logan

Thanks for visiting. Click here for more of Steel Curtain Rising, here for our Steelers 2013 Free Agent Focus or here for the Colbert Record.

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