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"Timmy told me that story one night, and next day I drove up to see him myself. The field was muddy. They were practicing in a parking lot, with cinders. Lambert dived at someone and when he got up, all these cinders were sticking to him. He went back to the huddle picking cinders off."
The Steelers drafted him with time running out for their second-round pick. It had been between Lambert and UCLA linebacker Cal Peterson, who wound up in Dallas. Lambert was happy to go to a place only a 2�-hour drive away, but there was a problem. Where was he going to play? The left linebacker, Ham, was just emerging as a superstar. Russell, on the right side, had played in four straight Pro Bowls, and Henry Davis, the 235-pound middle linebacker, had been a Pro Bowler two years before. Lambert began driving to the Steelers' office every weekend to watch films.
"I thought everybody did it," he says. "But I guess that it was unusual, since the newspapers made such a big fuss about it."
That was a strike year, 1974. Lambert got an extra-long look in camp. So did Mike Webster and Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, and a free agent named Donnie Shell. All of them wound, up as Pro Bowlers. The veterans returned, and Lambert backed up Ham for a while, but in the next-to-last exhibition game Davis went down with a nerve injury in his neck and Lambert was thrown in the middle.
In terms of defensive talent there has probably never been anything to match the Steelers' first two Super Bowl champions, the '74 and '75 teams. In the Pro Bowl following the '75 season, seven Steelers were on the starting AFC team, including all three linebackers. Another Steeler was a backup, another had made it earlier and another, Shell, was a future. That's 10 defensive Steelers with Pro Bowl credentials on one squad.
"We just shut people down, completely dominated them," Lambert says. "Teams would just give up running the ball against us."
" Bud Carson was the defensive coach, and having Lambert allowed him to do things that had been unheard of," Russell says. "Bud had him covering the tight end all over the field. He'd assign him the first back out of the back-field. Normally the middle linebacker covered the second back, which is a piece of cake; he's just a floater. But the first back, my God, it was thought to be an impossible assignment for a middle linebacker. He'd have Lambert making calls and changing the defense three, four, five times when we'd play a team like the Cowboys that kept changing their sets. No one ever tried to match the Cowboys call for call. Usually Dallas would get a team into some kind of simplistic zone, and that's when Staubach went to work, but Carson Would have us changing our calls as many times as they changed sets. Pure genius stuff. Once we changed six times. And Jack had to know everything, call everything."
Al Davis remembers a play Lambert made in the '75 season's AFC championship game against the Raiders. "There were seven seconds left and we were down 16-10," he says. "We hit Cliff Branch deep down the sideline and he was going to lateral to Ted Kwalick, our tight end. Lambert read it and positioned himself on Kwalick to take the lateral away, and Mel Blount tackled Branch on the 15-yard line. It was a great play by Lambert, a great read, and it never showed up in the stats."
In '76 the Steelers were beaten by Oakland for the AFC championship when a plague of injuries hit their running backs. In '77 they lost to Denver in the playoffs. Lambert had missed three games with a knee injury. He'd been a 39-day holdout in camp, over contract matters. A few people partly blamed the demise of the Steelers on him. He didn't take it kindly. Eventually he signed a five-year contract for a reported $1.25 million, making him the highest-paid defensive player in the game.