The Pittsburgh Steelers had plenty to be proud of in the 1970s — four Super Bowls, Chuck Noll, the Immaculate Reception, the Terrible Towel. But nothing and nobody were more noteworthy than its legendary defense, the famed “Steel Curtain” that was the hallmark of one of pro football’s most memorable teams.
So good was that unit that in 1976, after the Steelers stumbled to a 1-4 start, it held its remaining nine opponents to a total … total … of 28 points as Pittsburgh pitched five shutouts, outscored opponents 234-28 and ran the table, winning all of its last nine games.
So now the question: How is it that there are more Steelers on offense (5) from that era than on defense (4)?
“On defense,” answered Hall-of-Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene, ” we don’t pass the ball, we don’t run the ball and we don’t catch it. I think the defensive line got a lot of publicity about the front four and the ‘Steel Curtain.’ ”
Yet Pittsburgh’s defensive line has only Greene in Canton. Its linebackers have Jack Ham and Jack Lambert. And the secondary has Mel Blount. But that’s it, and Greene thinks it’s time for a change. Specifically, he thinks it’s time that former linebacker Andy Russell gains more attention from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“We talk about him as being the third guy (as a linebacker), but he’s really the first,” Greene said. “Andy Russell was there when we were the Steelers … you know, the team that everybody could beat. Andy suffered through some terrible years.
“Andy was a special, special teammate, experiencing all of the bad things that happened with the Steelers. He could share with the group the kinds of things that you needed to do to be successful. He was the guy that ‘brought the word’ to the locker room — and I mean by ‘bringing the word,’ the coaching philosophy, the teaching that Chuck Noll and his staff placed on us.
“He was able to translate and tell us that these are things that are going to come to pass and come to fruition. (And he’d tell us), ‘You need to listen to this guy.’ Over my 13 years I found out through experience you can have great coaches, but if you don’t have a messenger in the locker room who’s carrying his message it becomes very difficult. And Andy did that.”
Greene isn’t the first person to promote Russell. Ham did it on a Talk of Fame Network broadcast two summers ago, citing much the same value of Russell to the Steelers as Greene. But there are two obstacles to Canton that Russell must overcome: 1) First, there already are two linebackers from his Steelers’ teams in the Hall, and 2) he was in Pittsburgh for two of the Steelers’ four Super Bowls, not all four as Lambert and Ham were.
Greene is unfazed. As he pointed out, Russell’s value to the team wasn’t measured in All-Pro or Pro Bowl nominations (though he was a seven-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro), nor was it measured in stats (though he was the team’s 1971 MVP). It was measured in the intangibles, with Russell’s leadership so invaluable he was a team captain or 10 years.
“Every day, every practice, the guy that shows up to play, the guy that pays attention in the meetings, the guy that talks in practice,” Greene said. “One of the things that coach Noll used to tell us all the time (was) ‘You have to play your position like you know all of them, and you have to be able to communicate.’ And that was one thing that Andy did. It was all new to me.
“He’d be telling teammates what to do and where to be, telling them about formations and what plays (to anticipate). We saw as a young group how important it was to plug yourself into what everybody’s responsibilities were; what we were supposed to do as a team. And that made it so much easier.
“Andy showed us how to win, how to enjoy practice, how to prepare ourselves for the weekend. (He was a) very special leader.”