The Pittsburgh Steelers All ‘Bust’ Team: Defense

ike-taylor by Ivan Cole

If you missed Part One, let me review some of the ground rules.

‘Bust’ vs. Bust. This is an exercise in irony. So if you are expecting to see the Limas Sweed Story in this piece you will be deeply disappointed. To qualify for this team you have to be a success who is declared a failure before or during the time you are succeeding.

We in Steelers Nation are masters of this sort of thing. There are a number of ways this gets done. The criteria which will receive the greatest focus here will be:

  1. declared a failure before putting on a uniform or playing a game,
  2. not developing in a timely enough fashion,
  3. being fragile, injured too often, having personal conduct issues that supposedly disqualifies a player from receiving our support, or
  4. being declared washed up (old or otherwise done).

There will be something of a bias in favor of the Super Bowl era (some would say that everything Steelers prior to then is by definition a bust), and skewed even further toward the latter years of this period.

Part One detailed the offense and included two players and one coach who would end up in the HOF—Terry Bradshaw, Mike Webster and Chuck Noll. It also included a few others who have a pretty good shot of ending up there as well. Here we will take a look at the defense, which includes at least one HOF player among their ranks.

Again, a nod to Roxanna Firehall, whose All Good Guys series provided a bit of the inspiration for this effort. And speaking of irony, there is a healthy amount of overlap with many of those listed here.

Defensive Line

4. Chris Hoke. Remembered by most as upbeat free agent reserve who entertained his teammates with his Hokey Pokey dance, many forget that he started 10 games at the nose in place of the injured Casey Hampton during arguably the most successful regular season (2004) in team history.

3. Ernie Holmes. Offended by the abuse of women and dogs? How about shooting a state trooper? Didn’t do much jail time either. Outraged? Well good luck with that. When liquored up this 8th round draft choice and 7 year veteran was feared by his own teammates, and I mean Greene, Lambert, those guys.

A mutual friend of Homer’s and mine related a rather horrifying story. He was working at an all-night hot dog joint and an inebriated Holmes came in for a snack.

Present day fans feel comfortable throwing around invectives such as ‘thug’ or ‘punk’ with the belief there won’t be consequences. Let me put it to you this way—talk all the smack you want about Ernie, but we don’t know you.

2. Brett Keisel. It took Da Beard, a 7th round pick and a 12 year vet, a full four years to crack the starting lineup, and we all know that is unacceptable. He should have been let go after two.

1. Cam Heyward. As recently as the 2013 preseason Heyward was dismissed as a bust and a total waste of a 1st round draft pick.


Honorable mentions. The numbers in this category can be daunting, so here is a list of some honorable mentions and a few where you can contend the jury is still out, so to speak—James Farrior, Vince Williams, Larry Foote, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier.

5. Jason Worilds. This 2nd round pick was considered worthless by many until he wasn’t. Delighted that he left the game on his own terms.

4. Sean Spence. This generation’s Rocky Bleier if you will. Why did the Steelers continue to carry a player who was clearly done? What’s wrong with this team?

3. Lawrence Timmons. Never mind that season after season he was asked to play out of position to plug one deficiency or another. Many believed up until he was named to his first Pro Bowl last season that the first draft choice of the Mike Tomlin era was a failure.

2. James Harrison. He didn’t earn a permanent roster spot right away, and even after that it took this free agent from Kent State another five seasons to crack the starting lineup. So, did we learn our lesson? The sentiment wasn’t exactly universal concerning Deebo’s return last season. Washed up right?

1. Jack Lambert. Like Harrison, another linebacker from the same nothing school and the wrong size for the position. He’ll never make it.

Defensive Backs

7. Will Allen. Open questions as to why he was brought back last year and extended this season. Couldn’t people see that he was through?

6. Mike Mitchell. A wasted free agent pick up last season, right?

5. Deshea Townsend. It seemed like every one of his twelve years with the Steelers someone was trying to push him out the door.

4. Keenan Lewis. Steelers fans can be slick when we want to be. We were just soooo upset when we let Lewis go, conveniently forgetting that for much of time he was here we were screaming to get rid of this jerk. It was felt he didn’t have the talent, and he was a hothead (ala Mike Mitchell) who didn’t fit into the family friendly tradition that we have here with players like Holmes and Joe Greene who spit in player’s faces and kicked them in the groin.

3. Ike Taylor. Declared a bust on arrival by a local media personality and further handicapped by being born without hands, Taylor, nonetheless, eked out a twelve year career and has been recognized as one of the top players of the last generation for the franchise.

2. Troy Polamalu. The team trades up to get a player that doesn’t crack the starting lineup his first season. What a jagoff! Around 2011 some declared Troy a china doll who was both fragile and washed up. Trade him, cut him, let’s move on. Jeez.

1. William Gay. Team MVP right? I once compared Gay to the dog that’s never allowed in the house, and when you see him the first impulse is to roll up a newspaper and beat the crap out of him. Given where he is today as a player and a man can there be more damning proof that some of us in Steelers Nation are a bunch of sick puppies ourselves. If there were any cosmic justice, Big Play would make it to one more Super Bowl and get MVP.


Team Awards

2010. Franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is issued a six game suspension for, essentially being boorish, by King Solomon, uhh, Roger Goodell. In other news, the off field troubles of number one receiver Santonio Holmes continue. The team trades him to the New York Jets for a ham sandwich which I understand was quite tasty.* And just to top things off, Ben’s replacements, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are both injured, leaving the fate of team in the hands of that no account Charlie Batch. Stick a fork in them, they’re done. Oops. They went to the Super Bowl.

1974. The Steelers have so much faith in their franchise quarterback Terry Bradshaw that they start some black guy over him to begin the season. In those days such a thing was so unprecedented and abnormal that it became a top national news (not sports news) story. Three different quarterbacks would start for the team that season as the team’s offense struggled. Joe Greene became so disgusted and discouraged that he packed his car and had to be talked out of quitting in mid-season. The consensus was that the divisional playoff game between the world champion Miami Dolphins and the Oakland Raiders was the real Super Bowl. Oops. They win the first of six Lombardis.

2008. They were saddled with the most unfavorable schedule since the Polish Army had to fight Hitler and Stalin simultaneously on two fronts in 1939. Steelers Nation wrote the season off in June. Then they lost two of their best offensive linemen to injury (hmm, sounds familiar), were forced to resort to their 3rd running back also due to injury, did not have the services of their number one receiver in a game against the defending world champions due to off the field issues, and were without two of their three starting linemen for a significant portion of the season as well. Stick a fork..oops. World Champs.

2005. Jerome Bettis was persuaded to come back for a swan song and an attempt at a storybook ending to his career by attempting to make it to the Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit. What a joke that turned out to be. Bettis was injured much of the season. So was Ben. In the beginning of December the team would be forced to run the table in order to make it in as a sixth seed. And then, who cares, six seeds have never won anything. And then, at the conclusion of an inspired performance against the best team in the league, Bettis fumbles at the goal line, is recovered by the Colts and..Oops. Hollywood ending and World Championship.

*Lest we forget, the Steelers traded that pick to Arizona for Bryant McFadden and a sixth-round pick. With it they took Antonio Brown. The Cardinals took John Skelton. I think the Steelers perhaps won that series of transactions…


  • Good list, Ivan. I’m not sure any of my additions would crack your team, but I’ll throw them out for fun. Stevie McClendon has had his share of detractors, despite being a solid backup, now a solid starter. There were plenty who wanted to draft “another Casey Hampton.” Good luck with that. Larry Foote was washed up and sent packing, until he returned, played well and schooled a number of young guys, including Spence and Vince Williams.

    Will Allen was declared DOA, sent packing with not much fan support only to return and anchor the DBs and pin Shamarko to the bench. Jarvis Jones has been widely viewed as a bust, though Joey Porter, his position coach, says he’s doing okay. I’m guessing he’ll be a valuable player soon.

    These articles are a good reminder that the road to greatness often has detours, potholes and highwaymen (or surly, impatient fans).


  • This article should be bookmarked and available at all times. It’s that good. And also a splendid reminder why the Steelers have had only three coaches in 46 years and have had the good sense to fire none of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I just figured out what the current defense needs afterreading this: dudes that aren’t afraid to kick another dude in the groin!


  • First of all, thank you for this. I agree completely with Mr/Ms Roxanna Firehall about the reminder of the road to greatness. I knew some of this, some I’m grateful to have missed, some of it is straight up appalling for the fan reactions. I have to believe that we see the worst of fandom more often than we see the good parts simply because the whiners, complainers and haters are more vocal than the people who sit back and trust that, gee, this team is run by people who know what they’re about.

    But here’s an odd one. Reading your comments about the 1974 QB “controversy” I thought: I remember three Terry’s competing for QB about that time, but wait, one of them was black? Why didn’t I know that? I was sure of Terry Bradshaw and Terry Hanratty (I remember that he looked like Rollie Fingers, so apparently I paid more attention to baseball than I would have guessed even if he didn’t look much like Rollie Fingers and who the heck is that other than a baseball player with a big mustache? Another Google search is in order.) so I googled Terry Gilliam.

    Oops. Apparently I “misremembered” and made one of the Monty Python guys a Steeler. So I googled Gilliam Steeler and found Joe. A sad life in some respects and one I’m sorry about, but he certainly kept trying and I was happiest to read that at the time of his death he’d been sober for 3 years.

    But black? In 1974 I was watching Steeler games while lying on the floor in my parents’ living room. I was probably doing homework, reading a book or drawing pictures (nerdy kid) but I was always listening to my dad and mom narrate the games and I do remember those 3 QB’s and arguments about who should start and who was better and who…And they never mentioned that one was black.

    It’s a small thing but I grew up in a small town in western PA and went to a school that was 99% white until some kind of redistricting made us about one third black in 1972. It was the best thing that happened to our school, partly because our population had been dwindling for years and so we got a lot of new kids who shook up everything and made it fun again, and partly because we all saw the ugly face of racism (from neighbors, classmates, other schools that had no black students) and some of us came to understand how very ugly it was. My dad’s only words on the subject were that you should judge people by how they conducted themselves, not by the color of their skin. My late night google search on Joe Gilliam proved to me that no matter what my dad thought of him as a player, he judged him only as a player and so, belatedly indeed, I’m proud of my parents. At some point, my family became mixed race, as people used to say, and my parents never acted like it meant anything, so perhaps I should have known they really didn’t care but it’s nice to find confirmation in words that weren’t said in the living room in the middle of a heated debate about football between 2 people who weren’t sophisticated or had much experience of the world beyond the small circles they grew up in, and yet they had values they lived by.

    And sorry if this seems ridiculously ignorant about Joe Gilliam. When I looked up from my books way back then, I saw guys wearing helmets. I love the Steelers because of those conversations between my parents in the living room–my mom was the smart analytical one, so I’ve never discounted women’s opinions on football and my dad pretended to yell and complain but ended every game by pretending to shake hands with the team (mostly with Bradshaw) and thanking them. Mostly I remember them laughing and enjoying the game, even when things went badly and liking more players than they ever disliked. That’s what it’s all about to me.

    Thanks again,



    • I’m not shocked you didn’t know Joe Gilliam was black (although it is wonderful your parents were so far ahead of their surroundings,) but honestly you couldn’t see anything on those broadcasts. My dad used to make me watch the occasional Cowboys game and I honestly couldn’t tell what was going on – it was all a muddle. High-definition TV has made it possible for me to be a fan : )


      • Or maybe it’s just a problem I have. I had trouble once distinguishing between Suisham and Greg Warren. Small head, small shoulders, kicks the ball, whatever. :0

        And is it me, or does AB look quite different this year? The beard? He used to look like a happy kid, now he looks adult and yet is somehow less recognizable to me.

        Happy Thanksgiving!



    • As always, thanks for a sensitive, thoughtful response that added a layer of depth and nuance to what was basically a sarcastic remark on our culture generally, and the Pittsburgh and Steelers subcultures specifically.

      You could be forgiven if you thought based on what you saw in sports that Western Pennsylvania was an oasis of harmony and good feeling where people are only judged by their batting averages and completion percentages. Not true. Similar to you I attended a school that was 97 percent white (however, I wasn’t, which made it a different experience). Though the day to day reality doesn’t always measure up to the solidarity that the community experiences on football Sundays, it would be cynical to suggest that it had no impact at all, perhaps if only validating the impulses of your parents. It has to be a challenge of dissonance to wallow in divisive thinking when the teams that you admire and root for consistently project the spirit of brotherly cooperation and love.

      Part of how I interpret my task when I write a piece like this is to reflect how events were perceived at the time, not how it might be viewed from a more distant or enlightened lens. Black quarterbacks are considered somewhat unremarkable today, but at the time, Noll’s decision to start Gilliam as groundbreaking and controversial. What was done was merely both the right and decent thing to do, but it is a measure of the society we live in that right and decent can be thought of as provocative and edgy. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that action and a few others like is directly related to the fact that black quarterbacks are not controversial today. Somebody had to get the ball rolling.


      • Oh goodness. I see how I made this sound quite different from what I meant. I left out a whole bunch of connections to my logic there, as it was already long.

        I don’t think I grew up in an oasis of racial harmony. Far from it. That little town in western PA was then and it is now racist to the core. In fact, it may be worse now. I hate small towns (everyone knows their place, everyone knows your place) and I hated that one with a passion. But my school was a little less awful than it could have been, a little less awful than many of the schools around us.. We had a chance to become less racist, to think about it.

        I don’t know how many did. Not all, maybe not even a few but not just me. It’s always easy to see and detest bigotry in others, but first we have to see it and then we have to care. Eventually, we have to do something about ourselves. I was the right age for noticing–too young for social competition or the emotional trauma of puberty but a moral purist about what was fair. Third or fourth grade?

        The others I scrutinized for signs of racism included my parents, so perhaps I had doubts, perhaps I thought my dad was a hypocrite. I meant only that I think I would have noticed if they’d said something ugly because of my school experience. But they didn’t. Perhaps they did when they were with their friends or simply didn’t object if someone else did–I really don’t know. But in the living room, watching a game, they didn’t mention race. (I also wonder if that was actually a bad thing, but it’s usually best to interpret the behavior of dead parents as kindly as possible.) As I said, a small thing, one that moves me somehow. They weren’t out in the world fighting for civil rights but they were decent.

        And of course I have no way of knowing now where I fell on the spectrum of bigotry back then, even now. Maybe you never really know. Every one seems to believe only other people are racist, but obviously enough people are that–Fill in ugly statistic. We have some kids who belong to this household in various ways, some white, some black. They are not treated the same, and they know it. That part always makes me sad–when I realize they see the difference.

        thoughts for another evening–there are always, always, a few sentences in your articles that cause me to think for days.

        Happy Thanksgiving,



        • Actually I have to apologize to you for creating a misunderstanding. My use of the term ‘you’ as opposed to a more generalized ‘we’. I didn’t think at any point you thought of western Pa being an ‘oasis’, quite the opposite. The place where we grew up is a peculiar place; part east, part Midwest, part Appalachia, with good and bad aspects of all. I always thought it odd that Roberto Clemente, arguably one of the greatest Latin American athletes ever, played for a community that had no Latino population whatsoever when he was alive. I am not familiar with the current state of affairs. Such confusion. Visually identified as black, struggling with English as a second language, no understanding of his native language or culture. Ridiculed by some, beloved by others. In the final analysis his heroism on the field of play was eclipsed by his courage in the real world, a courage that would cost him his life. How do engage such a personality and the drama of his life without being somehow impacted in your own? Is it possible that this one person could change, even slightly, how an entire community imagines itself and what it aspires to? Can sport be that powerful an influence?

          Something we can ponder this holiday season. Happy Thanksgiving Earthling. And thanks again.

          Liked by 1 person

  • Excellent as always Ivan. Ditto Homer’s response.

    Here are two more linebackers to add to the list.

    One lost his first season to a torn ACL suffered in the first preseason game. Then in his second year he lost another 1/2 season to another knee injury. Really, like Sean Spence, the Steelers should have given up on him. Instead, in part thanks to Mike Merriweather’s 1988 hold out, this gent got some reps at mid season and was a starter by the beginning of the next.

    I’m talking about Greg Lloyd of course.

    And there’s another linebacker who comes to mind. He made a lot of noise as a rookie, even had the team captian calling him “Greg” in the huddle. Yet he couldn’t beat out Carlos Emmons as a rookie. And in fact, when he was held sackless during the 2000 0-3 start, the word on this player down at the barricades was “Bust.”

    You might remember him too. His name is Joey Porter.


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