Runs Like a Deer, Hits Like a Truck — Steelers Middle Linebackers.
In this edition of The Steeler Way – the Good Guys, we shift gears again slightly. While I’ve focused on the character aspect of the Steeler Way, great play on the field is the basic component of our tradition. Middle linebacker has rock solid pedigree in the modern era.
Pittsburgh has employed a long line of excellent middle linebackers since rookie Jack Lambert first stepped on the field in 1974. In 1982, the Steelers went to a 3-4 defensive scheme. It was Joe Greene’s last season and he was no longer a full time player. Jack served as a bridge from the great 4-3 team to the “new” 3-4 alignment. I contend, despite a the excellence of his successors, it took two guys to replace Lambert. As a consequence, Jack will get his own article in this series.
Through the years, our middle linebackers have been top shelf whether playing in a 4-3 or the various permutations of the 3-4 defense fashioned by defensive coordinators. These include Tony Dungy, Dom Capers, Jim Haslett, Dick LeBeau and Keith Butler.
In the Steelers’ 3-4, the Buck and the Mack are the middle linebackers. The Buck is the signal caller of the defense while the Mack linebacker is freer to roam, using speed and athleticism to make plays.
I’m concentrating on the Buck, who is the quarterback of the defense. The Buck is usually a run stuffer who sometimes drops in coverage, usually on a TE or RB.
With the exception of a few brief periods over the past 40+ years, the Buck has been filled by Jack Lambert, David Little, Levon Kirkland, James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons. Each one has made at least one Pro Bowl. Preserving the tradition of quality (the historical equivalent of “next man up”) is intrinsic to the Steelers Way.
While I don’t have a lot of specific recollections of David Little, I do remember him as a hard hitting tackler. He played twelve years, ten as a starter and defensive signal caller. A fierce competitor, Little made the Pro Bowl in 1990. He provided consistently good play and team leadership for the up and down Steelers of his era, (1983-1992).
He was the younger brother of Hall of Fame OT Larry Little. Sadly, he died at the age of 46 in a weightlifting accident.
Little retired and was replaced by Levon Kirkland in 1993. Levon was a favorite of mine, a joyful player with a high motor. Kirkland was a beast, a unique player with extraordinary speed for his 6’1″ 275-300 lb. frame. He was equally adept at stuffing the run or dropping in pass coverage. When I came up with the title for this piece, I was specifically thinking of Levon. There is some great footage of No. 99 (later worn by Da Beard) in the last minute of this three minute YouTube clip:
Levon twice made All Pro and deserved at least a few more. Once he cracked the starting lineup, he started 124 of the next 128 games. He was a freakish talent, flying his large body all over the field. Watching him wreak havoc with opposing offenses was simply amazing.
Kirkland’s Steeler career came to an abrupt halt in 2001, as described in an ESPN article, Cap Jacked. Like so many players in the salary cap era, he became a victim of the cap numbers. The Steelers were coming off two losing seasons and, as the highest paid middle linebacker in the league, Kirkland was vulnerable.
Kirkland was a wildly popular player and the leader of the defense. No one, least of all Levon, saw the cut coming. At the time, he felt betrayed—bitter about his release. He finished his career by playing a year in Seattle and another in Philadelphia.
In time, the wound healed. In an interview with Teresa Varley of steelers.com, Levon had changed his tune.
There was a certain pride there (in Pittsburgh). The organization was more like a family than a business. I have been to other teams and it wasn’t the same feel. I was so blessed and fortunate to play here where you had such a tradition of great linebackers. You knew the guys who played here in the past and had a relationship with them. You have a relationship with the guys who are here now. The Rooney family is outstanding…They say once you are a Steeler you are always a Steeler. I really do believe that.
Levon got into coaching shortly after his playing days. After serving as a recruitment coordinator at Clemson, his alma mater, he coached some high school football. In 2014, he coached the linebackers at Florida A & M. Levon’s dream of returning to the NFL was realized this year when he received the newly created Bill Bidwell coaching fellowship with the Arizona Cardinals. The program created a two year coaching internship available to former NFL players who wish to break into the pro football coaching ranks.
Levon lost his wife Keisha, age 41, to lung cancer in 2013, although she never smoked. Levon is active in Team Draft, a foundation to raise funds to battle lung cancer.
After a year with Earl Holmes calling the signals, the Steelers signed James Farrior in 2002. Pittsburgh, a team which rarely signed free agents, hit the jackpot with Farrior — he anchored the defense for the next eleven years.
Farrior was named an All Pro twice. In 2004, he finished second in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year to Ed Reed. Potsie played in three Super Bowls, earning two rings. While he was good in pass coverage, he was a great run stuffer. This remained true throughout his career, even though he played lighter later in his career. In 2004, he was listed at 243 lbs. By 2008, he played just as effectively at 218.
Potsie augmented his value with leadership, on the field and in the locker room. Mike Tomlin saw him as an extra coach. He was very verbal, sort of a combination of Big Ben (calm and steadying) and Joey Porter (emotional and fiery). He was the rock in the middle of the storm, calling signals and setting a confident tone in the locker room, but ready to fire up the defense when a play was needed.
Farrior’s leadership and mentoring skills were vital to the Steelers’ success. Although the defensive personnel was fairly stable through his career, he played beside three starting Buck LBs, (Kendrell Bell, Larry Foote, and Lawrence Timmons), three starting LOLBs (Jason Gildon, Clark Haagans and Lamarr Woodley) and two starting ROLBs (Joey Porter and James Harrison). Matthew Marczi of Steelers Depot put it well:
Under Farrior’s guidance, the Steelers’ defense was routinely in order and functioned cohesively, which was an underrated element of their success during that era.
James was the one constant in the linebacker corps. He was voted captain for eight straight years. During his eleven year career, the defense ranked in the top three in points allowed six times and in yards allowed five times. He played 15 years, making an astounding 1,412 tackles.
James Farrior lead by example; his star pupil was Lawrence Timmons. LT replaced Potsie as the Mack LB in 2012, after playing beside Farrior as the Buck for three years. Drafted in the first round, in 2007, Timmons was the first draft choice of the Mike Tomlin era.
Timmons did not crack the starting lineup until his third season. Certainly Dick LeBeau’s complex defense played a part in LT’s delayed development. The fact that Lawrence was used both inside and outside steepened the learning curve.
Once he became a starter, he blossomed. Although he made the Pro Bowl in 2014, he had been playing at at that level since at least 2012. Timmons has been a bright spot on a struggling rebuilt defense, missing only two games to injury in his nine years.
Timmons has done a great job anchoring the defense the past two years. He has been the glue which has held together a young defense which, despite growing pains, has won 21 regular season games and made the playoffs both years. Like his predecessors, he has great speed and can bring the wood. Here’s hoping the front office finds a way to keep him, despite a big cap number next year.
From Lambert to Timmons, the Steelers always find that guy who runs like a deer and hits like a truck. That seems to work pretty well.