Ledyard/Kozora: Greatest Steelers Edge Rusher


Another series, a collaborative one, to take you through the remaining weeks of the offseason. Jon Ledyard and I will pick a side in choosing the greatest Pittsburgh Steelers at each position. Tell us who is right and who won the debate – those don’t have to be the same answer – in the comments.

Jon chooses Joey Porter. I select James Harrison. Let the battle begin.

JON: 

Choosing the best 3-4 outside linebacker to suit up for the Pittsburgh Steelers is probably the biggest crapshoot of this entire series. An argument can be made for almost half-a-dozen players, and Alex has chosen well in James Harrison, one of the most violent and hard-nosed personalities Pittsburgh has ever had the pleasure of rostering. But is he the best outside linebacker in Steelers history? I believe that honor belongs to Joey Porter.

Porter was with Pittsburgh for only eight years, but that was more than long enough to leave a lasting mark both on and off the field. One of the most enigmatic personalities in the game during his 13 years in the league, Porter was always running his mouth and getting into opponents’ heads. In those eight seasons, Porter challenged everyone from President George Bush to Jerramy Stevens to Ray Lewis himself. He backed down from absolutely no one, and he played every snap like it could be his last.


In fact, it was Porter’s brash confidence in responding to Stevens’ instigating comments that had the Steelers defense so revved up for their Super Bowl matchup against the Seattle Seahawks in 2006. Stevens had popped off earlier that week about how Jerome Bettis would leave his hometown of Detroit a loser after the game, and that Porter wouldn’t be a factor. Part of Porter’s lengthy response is below, and it is priceless.

“I would think someone would say something, but I wouldn’t think it would be him – he’s too soft to say something like that. He’ll have the opportunity to back up his words, but I’m going to have an opportunity to back up my words.

“You ever see the movie ‘Underworld’? I was sleeping all week, but I got my first taste of blood right here; and it is great when you haven’t tasted it in a while. This week was boring until now.”

Porter would go on to lead a raucous Steelers defensive effort and shut down the Seattle offense in a 21-10 Pittsburgh victory. Did I mention that he also said before the game that Pittsburgh was going to try and “tap out” as many Seahawks players as they could during the contest? Simply put, Joey Porter was not a guy you messed with.

The best thing about Porter was that he always seemed to back his constant chatter up with his level of play on the field. 60 sacks in eight seasons is an impressive mark, as is four Pro Bowl nods and one 1st-Team All-Pro selection. Porter was a big play waiting to happen, with 17 forced fumbles and 10 interceptions with Pittsburgh. He simply brought it consistently off the edge, and if you were in his way, you were going to pay dearly.

Even though the latter stages of Porter’s career took him away from Pittsburgh, the respect for the organization remained to the point that he not only retired as a Steeler, but he would also return to coach for the team as a defensive assistant last year. His work there and apparent maturation led quickly to a promotion to outside linebackers coach with the team, where he currently serves.

So even with his playing days over, Porter’s legacy with the team continues to build. The Steelers of the 2000s weren’t quite the bruisers of the old Steel Curtain defense, but Porter provided that mentality and physicality to a unit that was asked to carry a still-evolving offense on more than one occasion. There were a lot of great players on that defense, but Porter’s role was so pivotal on a team with a lot of “good guys”. He played his part to a ’T’, en route to establishing himself as the best outside linebacker ever to play the game for Pittsburgh. If you doubt it, ask Porter, I’m sure he’ll tell you all about it.

ALEX:

This was the toughest selection yet. And I had the first choice, leaving me no cop out if I made the “wrong,” as if there was such a thing, pick. The greatest Steelers’ 3-4 linebacker of all-time? Woah. It’s like picking a favorite child. You’re wrong if you just answer.

A disclaimer: this is for 3-4 outside linebackers. Not inside and not 4-3 linebackers. So you won’t see Jack Lambert on this list but the next one dedicated for off ball linebackers. This is edge rushers only. Refrain from spewing your hate because #58 doesn’t show up. He’ll be here. I think.

James Harrison isn’t even supposed to be in this conversation. He went undrafted. Cut several times. Played in NFL Europe. There are children able to read this that don’t even remember NFL Europe was a thing. That’s scary.

And yet here he is. 69.5 sacks, eight away from holding the team record. 29 forced fumbles, second all-time. Five Pro Bowls and a defensive player of the year award.

I had a vivid memory of one of his first breakout games. The end of the 2004 season. Week 17 against the Buffalo Bills. A twinge of disappointment Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t going to play, the idea of going 15-1 an alluring one for 11 year old me. The Bills weren’t hapless, they entered the game with a six-game win streak and hoping to miraculously sneak into the Wild Card. But the Steelers rested most of their key players.

A Bills fan, the poor guy, put together a montage of the Bills’ season. The highlights from the Steelers game just after the 5:50 mark. It isn’t always pretty. Flashes of players like Ricardo Colclough – they never pronounce his name right and Chris Berman even calls him “Richard” – and Russell Stuvaints flash on your screen. Sean Morey makes an appearance…on offense. It was Willie Parker’s breakout game, rushing for 102 yards. Tommy Maddox started. Brian St. Pierre finished it and even had a bootleg on 4th down. The highlight exists. Go look at it (click to the 5:35 mark for the beginning of the game recap).

And we witnessed to James Harrison’s 18 yard fumble return for a touchdown. The ball knocked out, picked up in the air, and returned where it belongs to give the Steelers the lead.

Truth time. I thought that play happened on a blocked punt. There was no block that day. Man, the human mind really fills in the blanks sometimes.

That ’04 season was the beginning, a small, barely noticeable glimpse into the player the Steelers were getting. By Mike Tomlin’s first season in 2007, Harrison became the starter and turned in an 8.5 sack, seven forced fumbles campaign. He exploded in the Steelers Super Bowl season the following year with another seven forced fumbles and 16 sacks. Of course, the biggest play came in the Super Bowl. Harrison, on his own accord, dropped back into coverage to step in front of a Kurt Warner pass, running, stumbling, and probably heaving his way 100 yards into the end zone.

The single greatest play in Steelers Super Bowl history? Santonio Holmes’ catch later in that game would like to have a word with you but you can make a strong case.

Here we stand today. With a 37 year old that’s stronger and has a more insatiable work ethic than anyone else on the team, maybe the entire league. Somehow his legacy has only grown during the offseason, bringing the other younger linebackers out to train or just producing remarkable, borderline crazy, feats on his own. Like training in 200 degree conditions with a sweatshirt and weighted vest.

Porter and company won’t let him but he could play full-starter snaps this season if it was needed. He could probably do it next year. In another five years? Maybe not but I don’t want to be the one to tell Harrison no.

For as great as he’s been, Harrison isn’t one to say much. Go about your work, lead by example. He doesn’t have to speak. The great ones never do.

 

About the Author

Alex Kozora
Full-time blogger from mom's basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.
  • Jefferson_St_Joe

    I agree with the choices, but this article could have given mention to the lineage of great 3-4 OLBs. And, although he only played a couple of years, Kevin Greene was the best pure pass rusher of the bunch. Other OLBs who deserve mention in no particualr order would be Merriweather, Lloyd, Hinkle, Gildon, and Chad Brown. While they all weren’t rushers, they weren’t exactly off the ball either.

  • Alex Kozora

    I think we both made passes at how tough this decision is. And most Steelers fans realize who the other candidates were.

  • Orlysteel

    Greene was well on his way, but only played three seasons, he went to Carolina when he left and had 14 sacks, he and Lloyd wreck havoc.

  • Turd Ferguson

    Tough call. Tough to choose from so many. It all depends on the criteria. We are lucky as fans to be able to even debate this one!

  • We’ve had so many great edge rushers in Pittsburgh. I’m in no way going to pick just one, but I will say this…….look for James Harrison to play very well this year. He may just get that sack record after Jarvis Jones goes down with another injury. I mean, Jones seems to be one of those players who’s injury-prone. When you don’t have all the the talent you need to play the position, and you try to play outside of your abilities, you wind up getting injured. I give Jones credit for playing hard, but I just don’t think he has what it takes to be ‘one of the great ones’. I still think he’ll keep showing slight improvements here and there, but unfortunately for him, the team and Steelers fans, he probably won’t progress very much. It’s not that he doesn’t want to put in the work, it’s just, as I said, you’re either born with ‘it’ or your not. But don’t be surprised if James Harrison gets the start against New England. Physically, he looks better that he’s ever looked. The only question is, does he still have enough gas left in the tank to play a full season if called upon to do so. I say yes, but we’ll all find out soon enough.

  • 20Stoney

    No LB in Steeler history was held as consistantly as James Harrison was in his prime.

  • VIPSteel

    I’m going with Porter. His mix of production and vocal leadership hasn’t been matched by any OLB since he left. Both are attitude changers on defense though. We need the rest of the OLBs to toughen up too.

  • pittfan

    wt heck? Ike on the hands team?

  • NinjaMountie

    I know…i thought the same thing.

  • Alex Kozora

    I know, right?! Strange times.

  • As great as Porter was, and as much as he’s bringing to the team now (where we all hope he’ll be a successful coach), I have to go with Harrison as well. At his peak, just one of the scariest guys in the league, a defensive player who could dominate a game for stretches at a time or at least dominate so thoroughly as to distract the other team away from its own priorities. That he’s still playing at a high level this late in his career, finding a new life (essentially) when he returned last year, only speaks further to his enormous talent and dedication. And yes, that play. That one play alone. That makes this a clear pick, as tough as the competition may be.

  • NinjaMountie

    I’m going with Harrison. I will never, ever forget that int in the SB. I remember thinking, “Dang, we need an int here.” I just wanted the int to stop points, I never expected a rumblin, bumblin, stumblin TD return by the big man.

  • mem359

    Holmes had a 2nd chance to make a great catch, after he dropped the first one. It was tough, but I always gave Ben more credit for being able to make perfect passes on consecutive plays.

    For Harrison, the play clock had expired as he went down. If he didn’t will himself those last few yards to the end zone, using Fitzgerald’s leg to avoid being inches short, the Steelers don’t get the 7 points.

  • treeher

    Not only the greatest play in SB history, but one of the greatest of all time IMO. Watch it again and count how many guys had a shot at him. He would not be denied.

  • 6 ring circus

    That was a great read guys. I am not going to chose sides. Just glad I got to watch both do their things. Love them both for different reasons. Ain’t it great to be a part of Steeler Nation?!

  • toonasteel

    Poor Jason Gildon….all he did was sack the QB more times on the edge (or anywhere) than any Steeler in the history of the franchise and doesn’t get mentioned. Like Rodney Dangerfield, he gets no respect from Bob Labriola or from the younginz.. Tough call, but wow….the article should have at least had an “honorable mention” (others to consider) blurb like the Steelers website had when Labs picked the 4 best LB’s of the modern era.
    IKE on the hands team is quite the irony as well….

  • Steve Thomas

    Harrison is the most all around dominant OLB in team history. Ask Baltimore on Monday nights who they’d rather see…

  • brent

    Harrison all day. Harrison was also a tackling machine. It is unheard of for a pass rushing OLB or an OLB at all to get a 100+ tackles in a season. Harrison had 101, 102, and 98. The closest Porter came was 88 which is still up there. Consider this Ware, Mathews, and Suggs average around 55. I remember one year that Harrison had more solo tackles then any of the three of them had combined tackles.

  • PittsburghSports

    Sorry, but I’ll take Greg Lloyd over any of them. He has just as many Pro Bowls(5) and one more year as All-Pro(3) than Harrison. He should have beaten Deion Sanders for the ’94 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award too. The dude was just straight up nasty. In his first game Lloyd punched Gary Kubiak, when he was the Broncos QB, right in the face lol. He was Porter AND Harrison rolled into one. He was absolutely brutal on the field. He doesn’t have the sacks, but injuries at the beginning and end of his career really hurt his numbers. From ’91-’95 he was as dominating as any defensive player in the league. He was a tackle machine. In 131 games he had 659 tackles and forced 34 fumbles, which is a Steeler record. I can see putting Harrison at the top, but Porter over Lloyd is showing your age.

  • Craig M

    Pretty good call Lloyd over Porter.