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.
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.
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.