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ALL-MODERN ERA: Linebackers

The following is another in a series that picks a Steelers All-Modern Era Team. Players were considered based on having careers with the Steelers from 1992 until the present. The All-Modern Era team is made up of 26 players – 11 on offense, 11 on defense, and four specialists.


TODAY: Linebackers
Of all the positions on a football team, there is one that holds a particular cachet in the history of the Steelers franchise.

Even though the franchise has had the most famous defensive line in NFL history, the only quarterback to be 4-0 in Super Bowls, the cornerback who helped force the NFL to change its rules regarding pass defense for the 1978 season, and four different centers who were voted first-team All-Pro 15 times since 1978, it's always been about the Steelers linebackers.

In the 65-game history of the Pro Bowl, the Steelers have been represented by at least one of their linebackers in 45 of them, and their players not only have been among the league's best but also represent the trend-setters at the position.

Jack Ham, for example, had 32 interceptions. An outside linebacker during the 1970s with 32 interceptions qualifies as trend-setting. Same thing with Jack Lambert, a 215-pound middle linebacker who had 28 interceptions in the same era where the best players at his position weighed 250 or more.

The top photos of former LB James Farrior.

Those two players represent the best of the best for the Steelers at the position, but the team's legacy of excellence at linebacker has continued throughout the franchise's Modern Era. The team's utilization of a 3-4 defense throughout that time created a natural emphasis on the position, but there also is no denying the talented players the Steelers have employed there over the past 23 seasons.

Choosing the best four linebackers was the most difficult chore in assembling this All-Modern Era team, and it needs to be emphasized here again that this is a subjective analysis. There are legitimate cases to be made for several of the linebackers not included in this final four, but for my team, these are the players I want at the position.

In alphabetical order: James Farrior, James Harrison, Greg Lloyd, and Joey Porter.

Talent. Leadership. Versatility. Attitude. And a no-nonsense demeanor. Perfect linebackers.

The question was posed to Dick LeBeau some years ago, and so maybe the answer has changed, but it probably has not. When asked which of his former players he would school-yard-pick first around whom to build a defense, LeBeau immediately said: Greg Lloyd. "Greg had a no-nonsense approach," said LeBeau, "that seemed to permeate the rest of the group."

Check out the greatest photos of Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd.

On the first play of his first minicamp as a rookie sixth-round pick from Fort Valley State, Lloyd covered a back out of the backfield and intercepted the pass. A three-time All-Pro, Lloyd ranks eighth on the team's all-time sacks list with 53.5, and he also had 10 interceptions and 34 forced fumbles. Lloyd played in five Pro Bowls and was named team MVP twice.

There are a lot of elements that must come together for a team to complete a run to an NFL championship, and when the Steelers were doing it in 2005, Joey Porter was invaluable. Not only did he post three sacks in the three AFC playoff games, but Porter also kept the locker-room pot stirred just right. He called the Indianapolis Colts "soft" before the AFC Divisional Playoff game; he orchestrated two tributes to Jerome Bettis – one with the Notre Dame replica jerseys for the team's flight to Detroit and the other by allowing him to take the field alone during pregame introductions at Ford Field; and he took on Seahawks tight end Jerramy Stevens during the verbal run-up to Super Bowl XL. Porter finished his eight seasons in Pittsburgh with 60 career sacks, which ranks fifth on the team's all-time list. He also had 10 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries, which he turned into four touchdowns.

Captain Cool. That was James Farrior, and to use an anecdote to illustrate why he deserved that handle, it would be the one from the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff Game in Indianapolis, after Jerome Bettis fumbled at the goal line and Ben Roethlisberger saved a touchdown with his tackle on Nick Harper. In the immediate aftermath of that near-disaster, the potential for an emotional collapse on the Steelers sideline was very real. Dick LeBeau said he looked down for an instant and when he picked up his head to check his defensive-call sheet, Farrior was standing in front of him with his helmet already on, chinstrap being snapped. In that upset over the Colts, Farrior led the team in tackles with 10 and in sacks with 2.5. During his 10 seasons with the Steelers, Farrior had 20 takeaways (eight interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries), 52 passes defensed, and 30 sacks. A presence.

Super Bowl XLIII. James Harrison's career with the Steelers is about so much more than just Super Bowl XLIII, but that game sure ties a nice bow around it.

This was the situation: a Cardinals touchdown – it was first-and-goal from the 1-yard line – would give Arizona a 14-10 halftime lead. Harrison read a Kurt Warner tendency and dropped into coverage instead of attacking the backfield, made the interception, and then ran and willed himself 100 yards for a touchdown that gave the Steelers a 17-7 lead. Think about the difference between a 17-7 lead and a 14-10 deficit at halftime of a Super Bowl. Harrison will go to training camp with 69.5 sacks from his 11 seasons with the Steelers, a total that leaves him third on the franchise's all-time list, 7.5 behind No. 1.

Top photographs of Joey Porter.

It's true that three of these guys are right outside linebackers, but I don't care. Let the coaches figure it out. Lloyd and Porter both played middle linebacker when the Steelers went into their dime alignment during the Cowher-LeBeau years, and then one of those guys can argue with Harrison over who moves over to the left side. In my mind, these are the four who have to be on this team.

OTHERS TO CONSIDER
Let's start with the guy who's 7.5 sacks ahead of Harrison: JASON GILDON is the Steelers' all-time sack leader with 77. A third-round pick in 1994, Gildon played in 158 games for the Steelers, with 126 starts. During the five seasons from 1998-02, Gildon posted 54 sacks, and what hurts him in this competition is that for much of his career he was something of a liability in coverage.

The second draft pick of the Bill Cowher era, LEVON KIRKLAND was voted All-Pro once, played in two Pro Bowls and was named team MVP in back-to-back seasons in 1998-99. Kirkland did not miss a single game in his nine seasons with the team.

KEVIN GREENE, whose career had hit a lull because of a decision by the Los Angeles Rams to switch to a 4-3 defense, turned out to be built for the Steelers 3-4 alignment. Signed as an unrestricted free agent in 1993, Greene finished his three seasons here with 35.5 sacks.

The first two picks of the Mike Tomlin era were LAWRENCE TIMMONS and LaMARR WOODLEY, a pair of linebackers who signaled a remaking of the position was underway.

Still an integral member of the Steelers defense, Timmons has posted 100-plus tackles in four of the last five seasons. He was voted to his first Pro Bowl after posting 141 tackles and two sacks in 2014. Timmons (2012) and Porter (2002) are the only linebackers to lead the Steelers in both sacks and interceptions during the same season.

Woodley had 57 sacks during his seven Steelers' seasons, a total leaving him seventh on the franchise's all-time list. Forty-four of those 57 sacks came from 2008-11 and then a continuing sequence of soft-tissue injuries affected his availability to the degree the team released him.

THURSDAY: Cornerbacks

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