The Soul Of the Game: 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers Defense

Now how could we have a category on the best defenses and defenders in NFL history and not include the Pittsburgh Steelers?? As we moved into the 1970’s following the merger, we saw the hashmarks narrowed in 1974 and the goal posts moved to the end line to provide offenses more room to operate. Scoring had been down for much of the first half of the decade and it was thought this additional field to cover would hamper defenses. Especially those with burly MLB types that had limited range tracking sideline to sideline, or defending the pass.

Enter Jack Lambert.

A converted outside linebacker who stood 6’4 and stayed at a playing weight of 220 lbs. the majority of his career. What he brought to the table was the speed to get further back than the Willie Lanier’s and the Dick Butkus’, a prior generation’s middle linebackers who were mainly there to stuff the run. His ability to get past twenty yards in pass defense was the impetus for the Steelers to run what is NOW misnamed the “Tampa 2”.

It started in Pittsburgh because against the run and rushing the passer, Ernie Holmes, Joe Greene, Dwight White, and LC Greenwood were the finest front four of their era….possibly football history. Lambert, along with outside linebackers Andy Russell, and Jack Ham, only needed to clean up against the run and were already a step back ready to clog the middle and flat areas against the slower tight ends of that era. The result??

A defense put together from astute drafting grew into one of menace that powered the Steelers to victories in both Super Bowls IX and X. In Super Bowl IX the Steelers held the Vikings to just 17 yards rushing for the game. A record that stood until Super Bowl XX. They stood tall and defended against a frantic last second effort in Super Bowl X. So strong was the Steeler defense, Coach Chuck Noll ran the ball on 4th and 9 and let the Cowboys have the ball at their own 40 yard line leaving it up to the defense to win the game. While winning a second straight world title they set the Super Bowl record for sacks with 7.

A young team with an unprecedented chance to win a third straight Super Bowl went into the 1976 season with their front four in their prime.With Terry Bradshaw growing up as a quarterback and growing receivers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann with one of history’s finest defense….What would they do for an encore?? Could they threepeat??

Well the Steelers didn’t win that Super Bowl and after falling to the Denver Broncos in 1977, they returned to win Super Bowl’s XIII and XIV. It was the impetus to stop this defense along with the Denver Broncos 1977 performance (18 TDs and 148 points allowed) that made the rules makers make changes for  the upcoming 1978 season.

In fact the biggest of these rule changes was to nullify Steeler cornerback Mel Blount. Standing 6’3 and weighing in upwards of 200 lbs. he would manhandle receivers as they tried to run their patterns downfield. This new rule only allowed cornerbacks to only chuck a receiver under 5 yards. From there the receiver could run free untouched where in prior years a receiver could get hit by linebackers or safeties as well if the ball hadn’t been thrown. It’s actually referred to as the “Mel Blount Rule”. Another allowed offensive linemen to extend their arms while pass blocking to nullify Pittsburgh’s pass rush.

The Steelers dominance ended after their 1979 championship. The team had aged yet sent linebackers Lambert and Ham to the Hall of Fame along with two time NFL defensive player of the year Joe Greene. Was this the greatest ever defense?? Were they better than the 1985 Chicago Bears?? The 2000 Baltimore Ravens?? The 1969 Minnesota Vikings?? The 1968 Baltimore Colts?? Lets hear from you…

…and by the way, just to stick it to the rules makers who changed the game on them. The Steelers set the record for a 16 game season with only 195 points given up.

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