Remember in the not so distant past when local radio sports talk shows in the Bay area made an almost daily event out of finding a nickname for the Buccaneers defense?
Nothing ever stuck or maybe it’s just nobody ever came up with anything catchy or cool enough.
But great defenses earn great nicknames. Chicago’s feared “Monsters of the Midway,” the old “Purple People Eaters” of Minnesota and the Eagles’ “Gang Green.”
Pittsburgh, however, might trump them all when it comes to legendary nicknames. The hard-hitting safety Mel Blount, the unstoppable defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene and the toothless terror at linebacker, Jack Lambert, paralyzed opposing offenses in the late 1970s, earning Pittsburgh’s defense one of the most deserving and unforgettable nicknames in the history of the NFL, the “Steel Curtain.”
There seems to be a palpable fear or intimidation factor when it comes to facing the Black and Gold that is almost unparalleled to this day. Deriving its roots from those teams of the late 1970s, the modern day version of the Steel Curtain will attempt to impose its will on Tampa Bay’s offense, coming into Sunday’s game with every intent to uphold that same tradition and intimidation that’s been Pittsburgh’s M.O. for decades.
From Jack Lambert to Joey Porter, if you’re a Pittsburgh linebacker, you’re not trying to make many friends on the football field, you’re looking to smack someone in the mouth.
There is no mistaking the words of a young John Elway, who had this to say about taking his first NFL snap starring across the line at Lambert.
“He had no teeth and was slobbering all over himself. I’m thinking, ‘You can have your money back, just get me out of here. Let me go be an accountant.’ I can’t tell you how badly I wanted out of there,” said Elway.
Not much has changed over the years. Pittsburgh is a rough town and Steelers fans expect their team to reflect their blue-collar attitude. You might even imagine Pittsburgh’s front office has its own set of questions when interviewing potential defensive draftees; “Did you ever steal lunch money from another kid? Have you ever chewed through a tin can? Or wrestled a Rottweiler?”
The will to intimidate would seem like a prerequisite for Steelers linebackers. And it doesn’t stop with the opposing players apparently. Porter was fined $15,000 by the league after he threatened an official following the Steelers’ 20-13 loss to the Raiders earlier this year. The agitated Pro-Bowler was given a 15-yard penalty after telling an official that he would come after him.
That should seem a little extreme to most, but not far from the mentality the 1978 Pittsburgh defense used to help produce four Hall of Famers in Greene, Lambert, Blount and linebacker Jack Ham. Sure the franchise has had its successes and failures since then, but that group provided the blueprint for what every future Steeler defender would one day be judged on.
Over the years, we’ve seen Pittsburgh personnel directors and general managers plug in player after player, maintaining that physical edge on the defensive side of the ball.
Rod Woodson, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, Troy Polamalu — the list is impressive.
FROM THE STEEL CURTAIN TO BLITZBURGH Defensive guru Dom Capers was brought in by a newly hired Bill Cowher in 1992 and helped install the 3-4 defensive scheme the Steelers have come to perfect.
Linebackers Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd were instrumental in helping to define the "Blitzburgh Defense," which utlizes the zone blitz/pass-rush to create havoc on opposing offenses.
Players such as Greene and Lloyd have given way to the Porters and James Farriors, two outstanding athletes at the linebacker position whom the Bucs will have to contend with on Sunday.
“You just have to be firm, they have very strong guys, ” Bucs running back Michael Pittman said. “You watch them on film, they are very stout and very fast and very aggressive. And normally on third downs, I’m in.
“I’m also a very aggressive player. But I’m going to have my work cut out for me this week.”
Pittman says getting to the line of scrimmage early is a considerable advantage in seeing the defense and allowing quarterback Bruce Gradkowski to make checks and audibles to pick up the blitz.
“Bruce is responsible for making the audibles, but it helps to get up to the line quick,” Pittman said. “If we don’t have time on the clock, we have to call a time out or we cant get to our audibles.
“Sometimes it’s hard out there in the heat of the moment, but he’s been doing a good job.”
Film study is the best way to prepare, says Pittman. In the Bucs’ last game, against Dallas, which also runs a 3-4 defense, Pittman said he could only recall a couple of Cowboy blitzes. He expects to have his hands full against Pittsburgh though and feels that blitz pick-up might not be the most glamorous thing on a running back’s job description but it’s something he takes much pride in.
“Its not as easy as people think, especially when a bigger linebacker is coming at you full speed,” he said. “You have to be stout, you have to be strong enough to handle a guy like [Joey] Porter. He’s a big guy. I mean, I’m 220 pounds but Porter is like 255, and he’s strong, so you really have to try to get up under him and redirect him. I’m up for the challenge though.”
Don’t let Pittsburgh’s 4-7 record fool you into thinking the Steel Curtain has gone soft. The defense has allowed just one 100-yard rusher in its past 37 games. Since 2000, they’ve allowed just 13, that’s tops in the NFL.
The unit has not allowed its opposition a point in nine of 11 starting drives this season, but they are giving up more points now than they did a year ago when they finished the year ranked second in the AFC surrendering just 16.1 points per game.
Currently, they are tied for 22nd in points allowed per game (23), only holding two of the 11 teams they’ve faced this year to less than 21 points.
For an offense that lost running back Jerome Bettis to retirement, wide receiver Antwaan Randle El to free agency and some of their quarterback’s invincibility to a motor cycle accident, you can’t expect them to outscore teams that often.
Plus, it’s hard to win games when your team is last in the AFC in turnover margin at -12. Steeler quarterbacks have committed 19 interceptions and the team has 11 fumbles.
3-4 POLAMALU-LESS Bucs quarterback Bruce Gradkowski can sigh a deep breath of relief with the fact first-team All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu won’t be dressed out Sunday as he is nursing a knee injury.
However, the Steelers 3-4 defense is fueled by its aggressive linebackers, who like Jack Lambert, will be drooling over fresh meat behind the center.
Joey Porter and Clark Haggans have 10.5 sacks between them with fellow linebackers James Farrior and Larry Foote having three apiece along with defensive end Brett Keisel.
Check that against the Bucs, who have just one sack from the linebacker position, which belongs to Ryan Nece.
Those numbers have helped the Steelers rank seventh in the league in sacks per pass play.
“You need three months to get ready for Pittsburgh,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. “[Defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau, [Head Coach] Bill Cowher, these guys have a lot of stuff on defense and I have a lot of respect for them.”
Gradkowski has been dropped by opposing defenses 17 times this season, which ranks about the middle of the pack as far as the rest of the league. Certainly his mobility combined with the short drops Gruden has installed assisted in keeping that number respectable.
And although the Bucs offensive line has seen some of the 3-4 in Baltimore and Dallas this season, when you’re talking Pittsburgh and blitzing, it’s like talking about Germany and the Mercedez. They didn’t invent the automobile, they just perfected it.
“[Pittsburgh], unfortunately has about 180 different nickel blitzes and about 180 different base blitzes,” Gruden said. “And when they play straight up, they’re pretty good too. It’s just a 3-4 defense. It’s the second week in a row we’ve seen it, but the multiplicity that Dick LeBeau and Coach Cowher have is special. It’s pretty exclusive to the Steelers.”
After Friday’s practice Gruden said the Bucs were still working on blitz pick-up. He planned to keep a few of the guys after practice and walk thought it a little more. There was some progress, he said, but still a few things that needed to get “cleaned up.”
INJURY REPORT Tight end Alex Smith (ankle) and safety Will Allen (ankle) did participate in practice Friday, although each were limited. Allen hurt his ankle on a play early in the Dallas game. The Cowboys threw a touchdown pass to Terry Glenn down the middle of the field on the following play, but Gruden said he did not think Allen’s injury was a factor. “He just backpedaled and slipped on the turf,” Gruden said.
Allen (ankle), CB Juran Bolden (shin), running back Michael Pittman (hamstring/shoulder), LB Shelton Quarles (knee/ankle), TE Alex Smith (ankle) and DT Ellis Wyms (ankle) are all listed as questionable for Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh.
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