The 1976 Steelers Steel Curtain - the definitve NFL defense

THE NFL'S BEST DEFENSE EVER?

Football fans can debate their team's strengths and weaknesses until the midnight oil has finished burning and it will take until the sun has finished rising to decide which team had the best defense of all-time - but that mantle should rest on the shoulders of the Steelers' team of 1976.

Steelers media guideThe Steelers won back to back Super Bowls in 1974 and 1975 and their domination was expected to continue the following year. The Steelers' dynasty of the seventies was built around a tough running game on offense and a hungry, hostile pack of wolves on defense.

The man in the middle of that defense was Chuck Noll's first draft pick as the Steelers' new coach - Joe Greene. He soon earned the label of "Mean" Joe Greene and once commented on why he was so aggressive:

"Guys like me were fortunate to be playing football. Football was an outlet, a release.

It was a joy to be able to hit somebody in the mouth and not go to jail.

I tell my guys they're living the king's life. They can go out and kick ass and not get into trouble. Hey, it's football; it's not tennis; it's not golf."

Greene was thrown out of a game early in his rookie season for a late hit on the New York Giants' quarterback, Fran Tarkenton, who had led Greene a merry dance all afternoon avoiding the linebacker's close attention.

The following day Greene was asked about his ejection and commented, "It's the way I play football. I really get angry at an opponent for being on the same field as me."

It had been reported that Greene had been talking to Tarkenton throughout the game and in answer to a question on the subject replied, "I may have said, 'I'm going to get you!' I often tell quarterbacks that."

In that same 1969 draft, L.C. Greenwood was selected with the tenth pick.

The following year, the Steelers used their first choice on the quarterback for their future, Terry Bradshaw, but they also selected a player who was to play a pivotal part in their defense - Mel Blount.

He was so good at his position and gave receivers such a difficult time with his bump-and-run approach that he is credited with forcing the NFL to change the rules. On the resolute way he played, Blount remarked, "I didn't want to be second to anyone. I wanted to set standards for my position."

The 1971 draft saw Jack Ham, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and Mike Wagner selected, while Glen Edwards joined through free agency. The following year, Steve Furness was added to the defense.

The 1973 draft saw Chuck Noll use his number one pick on James Thomas and also chose Loren Toews in the eighth round. A year later, Noll used his second round choice on Jack Lambert, the fourth on Jim Allen, while picking up Donnie Shell and Marvin Kellum through free agency.

1975 saw John Banaszak join through free agency with the final component in the construction of the Steel Curtain the selection of Gary Dunn in the 1976 draft.

Another significant landmark in the development of the Steel Curtain was the hiring of Bud Carson from the college ranks of Georgia Tech as the Steelers' defensive backfield coach in 1972.

Jack Lambert vs the Bengals 1976
Jack Lamber takes on Cincinnati 1976

Earning the appropriate and deserved nickname of the Steel Curtain, the Steelers' defense was arguably the best of all time. With Carson's arrival in 1972 to the end of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl run in 1979, the Steel Curtain ranked in the Top 10 in scoring defense all but one year.

It ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in scoring defense five times in those eight seasons.

It also ranked in the Top 10 in total defense every single season, and No. 1, 2 or 3 six of those seasons.

In what would be nearly a decade of dominance, the 1976 season marked the zenith of the Steel Curtain. The Steelers ranked No. 1 in the NFL in scoring (9.86 PPG) and in total defense (260.4 YPG) in 1976. It was also the stingiest of all those seventies Pittsburgh teams and, in the entire Super Bowl era, it was the fourth toughest defense to score against.

What was so bizarre about 1976 was the terrible start the Steelers made to the season. After five games, the Steelers were 1-4, mainly due to a defense that conceded 22 points per game. Those games included a 31-28 loss to Oakland and a 30-27 loss to New England.

Terry Bradshaw was injured by the Browns' Joe Jones in the October 10 loss in Cleveland and didn't return until early December.

Media guideWith backup Mike Kruczek at the helm, the offense began to fire and the Steelers defense came to life and began to crush their opponents.

After a 23-6 win against the Bengals, the Steelers posted only their second back to back shutouts in team history against the Giants and the Chargers before completing their first hat trick of shutouts against the Chiefs.

With those 27-0, 23-0 and 45-0 victories, the Steelers' defense were creating an impact that would resonate forever. The remaining five games saw victories of 14-3 against Miami, 32-16 against Houston, 7-3 against the Bengals, 42-0 against the Buccaneers (when Bradshaw returned) with the season finishing with another shutout of 21-0 against Houston.

The team flicked a switch over the final nine weeks of the (then 14-game) season. The Steelers pitched five shutouts and allowed an amazing total of just 28 points (3.1 PPG) in those final nine games. It was the greatest stretch of defensive dominance in the history of the
NFL.

Pittsburgh's late-season dominance went for naught. The Steelers lost their two top running backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, during their dominating 40-14 win over Baltimore in the divisional playoffs.

Handicapped without a running game, they got spanked by Oakland, 24-7, in the AFC title game despite holding the Raiders to 220 yards of offense and a net 63 passing yards.

Jack Lambert was the NFL's defensive player of the year.

The "Steel Curtain" nickname originated in a 1971 contest sponsored by WTAE to provide a name for the Steelers' solid defense. Combining Winston Churchill's moniker of the Iron Curtain with the dominant steel industry of Pittsburgh, the nickname "Steel Curtain" established recognition due to being very apt and thirty years later is still in use.

The contest was won by Gregory Kronz, then a ninth grader at a suburban high school. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Kronz was just one of 17 people who submitted the Steel Curtain nickname to the contest, necessitating a drawing for the winner.


THE 1976 STEELERS DEPTH CHART
from October 10th, 1976 Pro! magazine.

Jack
Ham
LC
Greenwood
Joe
Greene
Jack
Lambert
Ernie
Holmes
Dwight
White
Andy
Russell
Loren
Toews
John
Banaszak
Steve
Furness
Marv
Kellum
Steve
Furness
Steve
Furness
Loren
Toews
Gary
Dunn
Gary
Dunn
John
Banaszak
J.T.
Thomas
Glen
Edwards
Mike
Wagner
Mel
Blount
Jim
Allen
Donnie
Shell
Donnie
Shell
Jim
Allen

The Steelers History index>>>

STEELERSUK>>>