Ledyard/Kozora: Greatest Steelers’ Fullback

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.

To the fullbacks today. Jon makes his argument for Dan Kreider while I stick with Rocky Bleier.

JON: 

Ever since I was a child, I loved football. Every cent I earned was spent acquiring football cards, until my brother and I could boast a collection of well over 35,000. At the time, collecting football cards was still a fairly common hobby, but the cards most people hoped to obtain were ones they could stand to profit handsomely from someday.

To be honest, that was never my mindset as a card collector. Instead I wanted the most diverse collection out there, I wanted to find the guys hardly anyone knew and continue to enhance my knowledge of the NFL. Back then we were still in dial-up internet phase so studying football cards was my best option to grow as a wanna-be sportswriter. I loved the unsung heroes of the league, the guys who did the dirty work night-in and night-out, sacrificing glory and praise for the betterment of the team. I felt that in some way by valuing their card, I was extending to them the respect that they might never get from the media, fans, or even other players and coaches. Maybe that was naive in some way, but as a young boy these players were simply the ones I gravitated to as my love for football grew and grew.

Dan Kreider was one of the those guys. One of the last of a dying breed of hard-nosed, blocking fullbacks whose specialty was smashing defenders face masks in, Kreider was the punishing type of player that a Pittsburgh fanbase grew to adore. His statistical impact is as minimal as it is insignificant, as Kreider was rarely asked to touch the ball on offense during his eight years with the Steelers. Instead he spend his time opening up holes for Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Duce Staley and others on his way to blocking for one of the top rushing offenses in the NFL year-after-year. Kreider was even voted rookie of the year by his fellow teammates in 2000, despite the fact that he was one of the team’s last additions as a free agent on draft day that spring.

An undrafted free agent out of the University of New Hampshire, Kreider is one of only 21 UNH players to ever snap on a chinstrap in the NFL, and he might be the most successful. The former Wildcat’s ten-year career dwarfed that of any of his 20 fellow graduates that made their way to the NFL, making him easily the longest-tenured UNH player ever in the league. Who would have thought that a fullback without any desirable athletics traits and limited rushing and receiving ability would become their college’s pride and joy on the biggest stage?

That was the kind of impact player Kreider was however. Just a tough, hard-working, gritty player who gained respect around the league for his class and tenacity in the trenches. He was the perfect Steeler, and while many others have had more significant statistical endeavors with the Black and Gold, Kreider’s selfless and vital blocking skills should be honored with a starting fullback spot on the All-Time Team in Pittsburgh. Lord knows his underrated contributions won’t ever get honored anywhere else.

ALEX: 

Best fullback of all-time? As valiantly as Jon will debate it, there is no discussion. Rocky Bleier is the greatest fullback in Steelers’ history.

Statistically, who else could hold a candle to him? Over 3800 yards and 25 total touchdowns. Like Franco Harris, a key cog in the team’s first Super Bowl run, and his greatest postseason outputs, including a 98 yard performance over the hated Oakland Raiders and another 65 in the Super Bowl over the Minnesota Vikings.

Kreider rushed for 144 career yards with Pittsburgh. Bleier surpassed that in a single game in 1975.

But statistics aren’t always fair and Bleier blended as a running back along with his blocking dutires. The era makes numbers more generous to him than say, Kreider.

War injury aside, which we’ll get to, the fact Bleier was able to make a Chuck Noll roster is a statistical improbability. He cleaned house when he arrived in 1969. Heck, his first speech to his new team was not one of encouragement but impending doom.

From Gary Pomerantz’s book, Their Life’s Work.

“Noll said he had studied all the Steeler game films from 1968. He knew why Pittsburgh lost. It wasn’t attitude. The players just weren’t any good. They lacked size, speed, and worst of all, their techniques were tragically flawed. Noll explained his approach. He said he would not make pep talks before games…to transform the Steelers into a winner, he said, he would need to get rid of nearly every player.”

As Pomerantz points out, only five pre-Noll players were still on the team when they won their first Super Bowl in 1974. Bleier was one of them.

Of course, the only thing tougher to get through than on Noll’s roster was surviving Vietnam. You know the story and I won’t retell every detail again. Shot in the leg and riddled with over 100 pieces of shrapnel, football seemed out of the picture. Noll had the mindset of cutting him and in fact, Bleier was waived in 1971.

The body that was once declared 40% disabled was in the starting lineup in 1974, helping the team claim its first Super Bowl. Though it didn’t result in a championship, 1976 would be his finest year, teaming with Harris to become one of the few backfield tandems to rush for at least 1000 yards, Harris going for 1128.

Personal anecdotes don’t mean much, and this is certainly not the lead case, but I had the pleasure of meeting Bleier once while in college at Clarion, part of his motivational speaking tour. He gave us a few minutes, as nice and genuine as could be, before he walked to the stage to speak to the general audience.  I was a bit starstruck, and probably asked stupid questions, but he didn’t seem to mind, lighting up as he talked about the Immaculate Reception.

There is no other Steeler at the position who can match his toughness, statistics, and odds overcome than number 20.

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.

  • chris ward

    Bleier, hands-down the best fullback in Steelers’ history.

  • Big White

    Honorable mention to Tim Lester.

  • BLEEDSBLACKANDGOLD

    Bleier gets my vote. But I would argue that Tim Lester belongs in the discussion.

  • pittfan

    This was unfair. Did you guy flip a coin?

  • Intropy

    Come on guys, it’s Franco Harris. How is this even a question? He’s one of the all time greats for any team. Immaculate reception, retired #2 all time in rushing yards, talent, productivity, production, lead an offense in an era where running meant much more than today.

    And Rocky Bleier wasn’t even a fullback.

  • Jon Ledyard

    Yes, I love Tim Lester. But only being in Pittsburgh four years and seeing action in all 16 just two of those seasons (6 and 9 games in the other two) made it impossible to include him. Just not enough time with the team.

  • Jon Ledyard

    See answer above.

  • Jon Ledyard

    Clearly I was the underdog here haha, but Kreider deserved to be recognized.

  • Jon Ledyard

    Check out our running back discussion from yesterday for more on Harris. And Bleier was a fullback, Harris was a running back.

  • Intropy

    Running back is a bit of an overloaded term. You could reasonably say a player in the backfield who runs the ball is a running back. But usually running back means the halfback. Rocky Bleier was the halfback, and Franco Harris was the fullback, though I think Bleier did play some fullback earlier in his career.

  • Jimi

    Man if we would have kept John kuhn he would be among this discussion but thats a if.

  • steelster

    A fullback. What is that ?

  • Alex Kozora

    Let’s put it this way. Bleier was lauded for opening up holes for Franco much more than Franco was for Bleier. That makes Rocky more of the FB.

  • Orlysteel

    ” the decleater.” The bus driver.

  • DonE

    Not for nothin’ but Rocky was actually the HALFBACK, Franco was in the Fullback position. I realize Rocky was the blocker most of the time though.

  • Mike Medina

    Totally dropped the ball. John L Williams was the best FB to ever play for the Steelers. He just played the majority of his career elsewhere.

  • IndianaCarson

    Not to take away any admiration for the hard nosed football that Dan Kreider played but wasn’t he trying to live up to Steeler standards and emulate the great Rocky Bleier?

  • Krankor

    First off, to dodge the whole “fullback” nomenclature issue, the position should simply have been called “blocking back”. The word “fullback” has simply changed meanings over the years.

    And let me just side-comment that I am *delighted* that you guys chose to recognize blocking back as a separate position. That’s a constant complaint of mine about all-time teams, blocking back is virtually always ignored.

    What’s more, Kreider and Bleier are definitely the right two finalists. Tough to pick between them, I love them both. It’s easy to get sentimental over Kreider, because he’s the last of the line, and many of us fans pine for the team to return to having that kind of a guy. But I think I have to give the nod to Bleier. Bleier for the versatility. No question they were both great blockers. But Bleier was also a jack-of-all-trades. He was really useful *running* the ball, especially in one specific way: Bradshaw was great at calling the running game such that he would get the defense totally keyed on stopping Franco, and then cross them up by handing off to Bleier. I saw this work very effectively many times. What’s more, you watch the NFL Films films of the Steelers back in the day and you can’t help but see Bleier coming to the rescue at key times, whether it’s making a graceful Nijinsky-like catch in the endzone, or recovering a crucial on-side kick. He was just Johnny-On-The-Spot. So I love Kreider, but Bleier has to be the pick.

  • Chad

    Very different use of the position. Really nothing to compare. I know we are in the doldrums before camp, but come on guys. Really.

  • Kick

    Merri hoge could do it all, catch, block, and run.

  • Hypo Cycloid

    Gotta give it to Bleier. Kreider was tough, but wasn’t war tested tough. Beier was missing part of his foot from Nam and still balled. That being said, my favorite thing about Kreider was that he OWNED Ray Lewis. I don’t think Lewis ever shed one of his blocks and I don’t think Krieder ever whiffed a block on Lewis.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    i think franco was actually listed as the fullback when he started with the steelers.

  • 20Stoney

    When I saw the title I thought for sure it was going to be Bleier vs Hoge. Remember the NFL films with Steve Atwater? “That damn Hoge is kickin our azz!”

  • Steelers_Vedder

    Harris was listed by the Steelers as a FB. Bleier was listed by the Steelers a HB. The lined up in both positions but as far as position listings go, Harris was a FB, Bleier was a HB.

  • Steelers_Vedder

    Yep.

  • VaDave

    Alex, Rocky’s blocking better than Harris, was a bit overstated. Rocky was certainly more technically proficient, and did land some key blocks from time to time, but the major blocking on the team back then was done by the OL, with Harris running off traps, and Blier running the counters, neither of which required the other back to block as much as they were decoys. Just my recollection of events.

  • VaDave

    Wrong Jon, Harris was the fullback, Blier was a halfback, however in name only. Pretty much, they ran out of the “Pro-Set, and most of the rushing plays were counters and traps that required minimal blocking by the back without the ball. So neither one of them were a fullback by what you might expect a fullback to do. They didn’t run much power back then.

  • Krankor

    Well my recollection of events was that Bleier got the job in the first place because Noll went to the running backs coach and asked who the best blocker was.

  • VaDave

    What you are stating may be true. But I ‘m thinking for most, when you think of a fullback, one thinks you are going to see a lot of lead blocking, and that was just not the case in the 70’s. Look at the picture at the top of the article. It’s a great example of the type of blocking that was employed. You saw a lot more of Gerry Mullens nailing defensive tackles on traps, or in this case, taking out 2 linebackers., than Blier running up the gut leading the way for Harris.

  • Krankor

    Well, there’s no question you’re right about the trap blocking; the team was famous for it. You’ve now got me curious to go back to some of the old film and see just what *was* Rocky doing on Franco’s runs.

  • VaDave

    Krankor
    I’d like to go back and see a bunch of those films as well. The only recordings I have from that era are the 4 super bowls. I would kill for another look at those those 4 AFC championship games…..

  • Jon Ledyard

    Franco was definitely not the fullback, not in the sense that position has typically been described. You can debate whether or not Bleier was a true fullback or not, but there is no question he was the better and more oft-used lead blocker of the two. So maybe neither fit the stereotypical definition of a fullback, but Bleier was in the lead blocking role that Alex and I more closely correlated to the position of fullback.

  • VaDave

    First of all, thank you for reiterating what I said about their positional titles were in name only, and that neither really were prototypical fullbacks. That said, to name Rocky as a fullback for this particular series of articles however, would lead younger readers to assume that the Rock was leading Harris up the gut rooting out ILBs. That was hardly the case. It’s romantic notion that Blier lead the way for Harris’s 10,000 plus yards and that was certainly not the way it was. Truth be told, he would have been run over by pulling linemen if he tried that as they were lined up only 5-6 yards behind the LOS. Yes, he did block on sweeps, the few that we ran, but for the most part, as far as blocking goes,he was doing backside blocks, or pass pro,
    I think there were much better candidates to choose from, such as JL Williams, Tim Lester, to name a couple.
    In conclusion, I really am enjoying the series, and don’t let this old fart yank your chain.