Is the new Steel Curtain the best ever?
Pittsburgh dominated foes this season, yet lacks mystique of '70s squads
by Dan Pompei, NBCSports.com contributor
ASK THE NFL EXPERT
Any discussion about the greatest defenses of all-time inevitably will include the Steelers. But will it include the 2008 Steelers?
Certainly, this defense does not have the mystique of the Steel Curtain of the 1970s. But if this defense wins a second Super Bowl title Sunday, that mystique will grow.
There really is little question the Steelers defenses of old had better personnel.
Four players from '70s defenses have been inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame - Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount. Another, L.C. Greenwood, has been a finalist for the hall and could be inducted some day.
Of the current Steelers defense, you would say Troy Polamalu would have a chance if he were to continue on his current path. It's really too early to have a hall of fame discussion about James Harrison. Two years does not make a hall of fame career. And there really isn't anyone else on the defense who would merit consideration.
The 2008 Steelers defense put three players in the Pro Bowl - Polamalu, Harrison and linebacker James Farrior. By comparison, the 1976 Steelers had eight defenders make the Pro Bowl - Blount, Greene, Greenwood, Ham, Lambert, Glen Edwards, J.T. Thomas and Mike Wagner.
The old Steelers had the most dominant unit from the two teams - their defensive line of Greene, Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White.
Linebackers were a strength for both teams, as the current Steelers feature Harrison, Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons. The '70s Steelers had Ham, Lambert and Andy Russell.
This Steelers team doesn't have a cornerback like Blount. But that Steelers team didn't have a safety like Polamalu.
Most experts who are familiar with both defenses will have an opinion like John Madden's. "I respect the hell out of this Steelers defense," Madden said. "It's the best in football."
Buuuuuut ... "Those old Steelers defenses were the greatest," he said. "You just look at those guys that played in that defense. You knew they were great."
The current Steelers defense is more scheme driven, courtesy of the brilliance of Dick LeBeau. That team played a four man front; this team plays a 3-4. LeBeau is respected as one of the league's premier game planners and defensive play callers. Like Bill Belichick, Rex Ryan and Jim Johnson, he creates confusion and dictates to offenses.
It is difficult to compare the teams statistically because of how offenses have changed, but what we can say is that both were dominant.
The 1976 Steelers, a team that lost in the AFC Championship game in part because they were without Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, allowed 9.8 points per game. They came on strong down the stretch, allowing only 28 points over their last nine games.
The 2008 Steelers allowed 13.9 points per game. They led the league in points allowed, yards allowed and passing yards allowed. They were second in rushing yards allowed. No team has led the league in all four categories since the NFL merger in 1970.
What is significant about these numbers is that NFL scoring was the highest it has been in 2008 since 1965. The Steelers held opponents to fewer yards on average than any defense since 1978.
So while this is not the Steel Curtain, it is a great defense. Safe to say it's one of the greatest defenses we've seen in a long time.
Q: Hey Dan, is Russ Grimm still considered a prime head coaching candidate or did all of that end when he didn't get the Steelers job a couple of years ago?
- Chuck, Uniontown, Penn.
A: I think Grimm lost a bit of his luster when he didn't get the Steelers job, but I wouldn't say his window of opportunity slammed shut forever.
I think he will at the very least be a candidate again in the future. He probably would have been a candidate for some of the openings this year had he not been busy coaching the Cardinals in the postseason.
And don't forget, there still remains one head coach opening this year.
Q: There's no way Mike Shanahan would coach the Chiefs, right? Please say no.
- Aaron Martens, Cheyenne, Wyo.
A: I would never say never, but it certainly appears it will not happen this year. My sources tell me the Chiefs were interested in Shanahan, however. My guess is Shanahan probably is looking for a situation in which he can have more control over personnel and his staff.
Q: Dan, We need to get Bob Keuchenberg in the Hall. A fantastic guard who played on 4 Super bowl teams. Grade him out!! The best at his position. It will be a travesty to leave him off again.
- Bill Beisiegel, Broken Arrow, Okla.
A: I think Kuechenberg will have a chance this year. It's always hard to get offensive linemen in - especially interior offensive linemen. When voters compare guards to say, wide receivers, it's difficult to justify voting for the guard because the wide receiver can have so many flashy individual numbers that enhance is argument.
The offensive linemen have only team accomplishments. Kuechenberg also faces tough competition from two other guards - Russ Grimm and Randall McDaniel. It's possible the guards will cancel each other out.
Q: The Green Bay Packers fired their offensive quality control coach. What the heck is a quality control coach and what does he do?
- Andrew, Hales Corners, Wisc.
A: A quality control coach typically spends a lot of time in dark rooms breaking down a lot of tape and examining trends, both for the team he works for and their opponents. This way, a team knows the answer to questions like: what percentage of snaps does a team pass when using tiger personnel on second and five?
It is not uncommon for NFL teams to employ one of these coaches on offense and another on defense.
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