Top Ten Single Season Defenses in NFL History : #4 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers

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.

No one could run on the '76 Steelers

No one could run on the ’76 Steelers

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??

This team was primarily responsible for the upcoming rule changes of 1978 and this was their best season. For the year they were #1 overall (237.4 y/pg) gave up just 138 points and held 7 of 8 straight opponents to 10 points or less. Five of those came by shutout and the first modern team to record 3 in a row. In fact they only allowed 2 touchdowns in the last 10 games and those came in the same game. A 32-16 win over the Oilers. They had a string of 25 quarters where they didn’t allow a touchdown. They were so good they had to be legislated out of business.

Starting in 1978 they instituted the “Mel Blount Rule” where receivers could only be jammed / hit within the first five yards of the scrimmage line. Blount was bludgeoning receives all down the field until the pass was thrown. Pass protectors were allowed to extend their arms to better protect against the Steel Curtain. The head slap was another tactic taken away from Pittsburgh’s charging front four in 1978. All of these rule changes can be traced back to this group.

RIP Coach Noll

RIP Coach Noll

One of the best in history and number 4 on The Chancellor of Football’s list.

Dedicated to the memories of Art Rooney, Chuck Noll, Ernie Holmes, LC Greenwood, & Dwight White.

Lester Hayes Belongs In The Hall of Fame

Does he have on enough stickum??

As the NFL changed the rules in 1978 to liberate the passing game, many thought the big physical cornerback would give way to smaller quicker men. Those who could turn and run with receivers after the 5 yard “chuck” zone (The Mel Blount Rule) would be highly sought after. Yet one team held steadfast to the belief of not allowing that receiver a free ride off the line of scrimmage.

The Oakland Raiders who in 1977, just one year removed from winning Super Bowl XI, selected Lester Hayes out of Texas A&M. Where the league saw smaller cornerbacks at 175-180 lbs enter the league at that time. Hayes was a converted college safety who stood 6’0 and weighed 200 lbs.

His inclusion into the Raiders organization was at the right time as Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown retired and took over as secondary coach. Under his tutelage Hayes became a master of bump and run coverage and with his size, manhandled receivers at the line of scrimmage. Sure a receiver could run free after 5 yards but he had to get there first.

Another retiring Hall of Fame Raider was WR Fred Biletnikoff who went against Hayes in practice. Fred ran crisp routes and was a slower version of Steve Largent or a Charlie Joiner. Going up against he and Cliff Branch, who was the one of the league’s perennial deep threats, honed his skills to that of one of the greatest cornerbacks the game had ever seen. He also borrowed Biletnikoff’s use of stickum and took it to obscene levels. Take a look at the pic on the right if you think we’re joking.

Stickum talk aside, his true coming out party was the 1979 season where he led the team with 7 interceptions, returning 2 for touchdowns in the only losing season for the Raider organization during the 1970’s. John Madden had retired and Tom Flores had taken over as Head Coach and the Raiders were a team in transition.

Most teams make a transition in personnel with a defensive leader being a linebacker or a star defensive lineman being a marquee player yet here was a cornerback just starting to make a name for himself at the helm. However he couldn’t unseat Louis Wright of Denver, Mel Blount of Pittsburgh, or Mike Haynes of New England on the 1979 AFC Pro Bowl roster. Naturally you’ll conclude they had better seasons yet Blount and Haynes made it on reputation with only 3 interceptions each and Wright only had 2. A gross injustice just because Hayes team had slipped that year.

Enter the greatest single season for a cornerback in NFL history and the greatest coaching job in NFL history…the 1980 Oakland Raiders. In the second season for Tom Flores, the Raiders became the first team to win the Super Bowl from a wildcard position. The team had replaced nine defensive starters from a Super Bowl team just four years before.

Lester Hayes intimidating style at cornerback belied his agility to cover the fastest and best route runners in the NFL.For the season, he picked off 13 passes, just one short of the NFL record by “Night Train” Lane in 1951.  Not only was that the highest total in 39 years, no cornerback has come within 2 of that performance since then (Everson Walls in 1981). He returned those passes for 273 yards and one touchdown and went on to be the Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

He was the first player to receive the award while playing for a team that didn’t finish as a top 10 defense with the Raiders finishing 11th. He did this while facing Hall of Fame WRs Steve Largent in Seattle, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow in San Diego, and the electrifying John Jefferson also of the Chargers with whom he had epic battles with.

During the 1980 season teams kept testing him and coming up snake eyes. If you added his 4 interceptions during the playoffs he finished with 17 interceptions in one season. If you look at that against the year Hall of Famer Deion Sanders won his NFL MVP (1994 with San Francisco) from the same position, 6 interceptions for 303 yards and 3 TDs with 2 more ints. in the postseason, it dwarfs it tremendously. Sanders needed another NINE interceptions just to tie him!!!  You would have to add Deion’s next FOUR seasons with Dallas to total 17!! Tremendous

Oakland went on to win Super Bowl XV and the 80 playoffs began with a wildcard battle against Houston and former quarterback Ken Stabler. The Raiders prevailed 27-7 with the final points scored on Hayes intercepting Stabler and returning it 20 yards hand held high to send the Raiders to Cleveland and the divisional round.

He intercepted Stabler twice then intercepted 1980 NFL MVP Brian Sipe twice in the 14-12 upset of the Browns. In the AFC Championship against the Chargers and the Super Bowl with the Eagles, Dan Fouts and Ron Jaworski just didn’t throw into his area. How do we know this?? In Super Bowl XV Hayes was the left cornerback. Jaworski threw exclusively to his left and Right OLB Rod Martin picked off a Super Bowl record 3 interceptions in a 27-10 win.

The NFL outlawed stickum after that 1980 season in anther decision that Raider loyalist felt was the offspring from the court battle between Raiders’ owner Al Davis and commissioner Pete Rozelle. Some thought that Hayes inability to use stickum had a lot to do with his interception total dropping, when in fact quarterbacks just flat didn’t throw into his area. He never intercepted more than 3 passes in a season from that point forward.

Lester Hayes showing off both rings from Super Bowl XV and XVIII

After being overshadowed by Mike Haynes for that 1979 Pro Bowl slot, he was joined by his former counterpart in 1983 to form one of the greatest CB tandem in NFL history. In that year the Washington Redskins became the highest scoring team in NFL history scoring 541 points on their way to Super Bowl XVIII. Washington’s quarterback Joe Theismann was the NFL’s MVP and the Redskins were being hailed as the greatest team in NFL history…yet they had to defend their title against Los Angeles.

The Raiders started their charge in the 83 playoffs with a 37-10 devastation of the Pittsburgh Steelers which ironically began with Hayes getting the team started with an 18 yard TD interception return. After a 30-14 win against the Seahawks in the AFC Championship experts had the Redskins winning a high scoring game.

What took place in Super Bowl XVIII was a dismantling of epic proportions. Charlie Brown, who had caught 78 for 1,225 and 8 TDs during the regular season, was smothered along with Art Monk and held to a combined 4 receptions by Hayes and Haynes. The coverage was so superb the Raiders blitzed their linebackers and recorded 6 sacks as Joe Theismann had his worst game of the year. His stat-line?? Theismann was held to 16 of 35 for 243 yards and 2 ints. Only one pass was completed in Lester Hayes area the entire day. He won his second championship ring as the Raiders won in dominating fashion 38-9.

Hayes at this point was the best cornerback in all of football. He played in 5 straight Pro Bowls from 1980-1984 and was the player most future NFL’ers modeled their game after. Most notably Hanford Dixon of the Cleveland Browns. Everything from the three foot long towel hanging from his waist to his aggressive play against a receiver at the line. Dixon and Frank Minnifield are the tandem that Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes are most often compared to. As a combo… Dixon and Minnifield were the best tandem in NFL history. Yet the man who coined the Brown’s “Dawg Defense”, was a 3 time Pro Bowler who modeled himself to be like Lester, what would you call Hayes?? In The Chancellor’s book, he’s a Hall of Famer

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present to you Lester Hayeslester

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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Our Proposed NFL Changes To Aid NFL Defenses

Green Bay Packers sacking Carson Palmer. An event we are not seeing enough of in today’s NFL.

What a completely goofy NFL season we just watched.  We knew that teams were going to be thrown off after the lockout but the fallout was greater than we thought.  We knew folks were going to have record offensive seasons, but what we saw was beyond our original thoughts. Dan Marino’s all time passing record of 5,084 yards being bested by nearly 400?? Where only twice in history we saw individual 5,000 yard passers give way to a season where we had three?? The NFL saw it’s first ever season in 2011 where multiple quarterbacks threw for more than 40 touchdowns in the same season. Seriously??

After an NFL season where the league cracked down on helmet to helmet hits on the field, we saw records for passing yards from multiple teams. When you look up and see a Matthew Stafford become the third quarterback in the same season to throw for over 5,000 yards, yo u know something is definitely wrong. Not only was it Stafford’s first complete season as a starting quarterback, he was outgunned in the season finale by Packers 2nd string quarterback, Matt Flynn. In that game, all Flynn did was shatter Packers passing records for yardage (480) and touchdowns (6) in his only start this year while the Packers rested Aaron Rodgers. This in microcosm was the NFL this season, high flying offense playing against pensive defenses scared to attack quarterbacks and receivers. It’s at this point, we claim the rules have been altered too much to aid the offense and something must be done. Yet where do we begin.

Sports Illustrated cover featuring the Amazing Orange Crush’s Rubin Carter once the Broncos went to 6-0 in 1977.

Well we have to take you back to 1978 to understand how we got here. The NFL adopted several rules to open up offenses that had been shut down during the mid 1970s. Most of these were in effect to legislate the Pittsburgh Steelers out of dominance. In 1976 the Steelers had a string where they gave up only 28 points over their last 9 games and shut out 5 of their last 8 opponents. This was followed up in 1977 when the Denver Broncos, on their way to Super Bowl XII, only gave up 148 points and 18 touchdowns. So something had to be done.

Well in 1974 the NFL widened the hashmarks and thought that would bring about more open space for the offense to move. Also wide receivers were not allowed to be chopped “hit below the waist” at the line of scrimmage. These changes weren’t enough. So in 1978 the rules were amended to where defenses were only allowed to “chuck” receivers within the first five yards of the scrimmage line. This is known as the Mel Blount rule. Offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms while pass blocking to stop hard charging linemen.  Then about a decade later the league deemed that not enough and employed the cheat step. You’ll see tackles with their outside leg pivoted 2 to 3 yards back in the backfield to get a head start on blocking an opponents speed rusher. Couple this with “in the grasp” and any touching of the helmet of a quarterback culminating in a fifteen yard penalty and defensive players are playing on egg shells…

So what gets repealed?? Wide receivers getting hit all over the field if the ball isn’t in the air?? Well there are those that like to see a good bomb thrown in a football game so we won’t go there. Yet what we will do is return play at or near the line of scrimmage to it’s roots.

Article I Roughing the Passer – This will be called when the defensive player takes more than one step to hit the quarterback or if a hand extended to knock down a pass is swung to make contact with the quarterbacks helmet only. No more bogus 15 yard penalties to keep drives alive when a defender’s hand grazes a quarterbacks head. While reaching up to knock down a pass, it’s inevitable a defenders hand will hit a quarterbacks helmet. Only call it if the defender blatantly slams forward hitting the helmet. That’s why a quarterback wears one…for head protection.

Article II Repealing the offensive tackles cheat step to aid against speed rushers. Defensive players should be able to rush the quarterback better which should cause a few more errant throws and quarterback sacks. Enough with watching a Drew Brees throwing a football 62 times as he did in yesterday’s playoff loss to the 49ers with few hands in his face. Furthermore this would force offenses to employ smaller and quicker tackles. In light of the health issues and the mortality rate of 300 lbs. linemen after their playing days, this could be a move in the right direction.

Article II a. Repealing the rule that if a defensive linemen moves, which forces the offensive lineman to flinch, then penalizing the defender. This was another dumb rule that came along within the last 15 years. Nope…sorry. Return offensive linemen to having to play football and allow defenders the chance to rattle a young lineman or an injured one. Defensive players should be able to manipulate line play as much as the offense.

Article III Allow receivers to be hit within the first ten yards of the line of scrimmage. Enough of watching basketball players in shoulder pads, a helmet and nothing else, running unencumbered down the green fields of the NFL. Defenders should be allowed to have a cornerback “chuck” him and then a linebacker be able  to do so afterward to throw off the offensive play. Make receivers play football again.

The last change is a subtle referendum on pass interference. Re-emphasize the incidental contact rule made famous after the Benny Barnes /Lynn Swann Super Bowl XIII tripping moment. If there isn’t blatant pass interference where the defender disrupts the receivers attempt to catch the football, don’t throw the flag!! Far too many cheap 50 yard penalties because some primadona receiver flails his arms calling for one. Half the time, you’ll see receivers throwing their hands up instead of just trying to catch the football and this cheapens the game. It makes defenders gun shy in playing their position when the ball is in the air, and this is football, some contact will be made.

This is where the competition committee has given way to the corporate nature of the NFL’s non football playing brass. Everything isn’t about offense, offense, offense. Football fanatics remember reverently the ’85 Chicago Bears whom many feel were the best in history because of the 46 Defense. Steeler nation is right behind them having gained fans from the ‘Steel Curtain’ days and the current ‘Blitzburgh’ edition. Same thing with the Doomsday Defense in Dallas, and the 2000 Ravens. Teams where great defense was as beautiful to watch as tons of offense. This isn’t roller derby or basketball on grass. Lets return football to it’s fundamental roots that we all recognize.

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