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THE '70s
Paul Zimmerman
August 30, 1999
Steel Curtain: a defense for the ages
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August 30, 1999

The '70s

Steel Curtain: a defense for the ages

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He was a Pro Bowl linebacker who manned the right outside spot for 12 seasons, including the Super Bowl championships of 1974 and '75. But in all his years as a Steeler, Andy Russell never saw another defense like the one he played on in 1976.

The Steelers started that season 1-4, and a loss in Week 5 was made worse when Browns defensive end Turkey Jones turned Terry Bradshaw upside down and slammed him to the turf, sidelining the Pittsburgh quarterback for two games. What followed was one of the most phenomenal runs an NFL defense has ever had. In their remaining nine regular-season games (all victories), the Steelers gave up a total of 28 points, shutting out five clubs and allowing only two touchdowns. In an AFC divisional playoff matchup, Pittsburgh crushed the Baltimore Colts 40-14, but running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier went down with injuries, and the punchless Steelers lost to Oakland 24-7 in the AFC Championship Game the following week.

There had been sturdy defenses, but the NFL had never seen anything like the Steel Curtain. It was made up of fine athletes who had great speed and the intelligence to implement the intricate schemes of defensive coordinator Bud Carson. Carson, who had arrived in 1972, installed the seldom seen double zone, with the corners pressing the receivers hard at the line, bumping them downfield, then passing them off to the safeties. "You can't believe how many great quarterbacks couldn't read that defense," he says.

To neutralize the pulling guard, the Steelers cocked tackle Joe Greene in an odd, tilted stance outside the center. Left end L.C. Greenwood was a 6'6", 253-pounder who could run the 40 in 4.6. All three linebackers were undersized, but swift. Athletically, no offensive unit was their equal. Other teams started drafting speed, along with muscle, to nullify enemy attacks.

The leaguewide defensive renaissance left offenses gasping for breath. Scoring dropped. Enter Schramm, whose Cowboys had lost to the Steelers in Super Bowl X in January 1976 and who chaired the league's Competition Committee. Before the 1977 season the head slap was outlawed; the following year, receivers couldn't be bumped once they got five yards beyond the line of scrimmage; offensive holding restrictions were relaxed. But even that didn't stop the Steelers from winning two more Super Bowls, in the 1978 and '79 seasons.

Ten of the 11 defensive starters from the '76 team went to a Pro Bowl at some point in their careers. Four of them—Greene, linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert and right cornerback Mel Blount—are in the Hall of Fame.

"We put eight defensive players in the Pro Bowl for two straight years, '75 and '76," Russell says. "I remember one series when all eight of us were on the field. Jack Lambert started calling the defenses. The other three guys said, 'What do we do?' Jack said, 'Just stay out of the way.' "