Throw around debate about the best NFL franchises of all time and you are bound to hear the six-time Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers come up. Spur discussion regarding the best Super Bowl team of all time and one of the four 1970s Steelers teams will be mentioned as well. Take it a step further and ask who the best defense of all time was and, again, a Steelers team from the 1970s will assuredly be cited. What made the Steelers of the 1970s so great? One word—stability. Stability in ownership, coaching philosophy and player expectations characterize the Pittsburgh Steelers organization.
It’s not just Steeler teams of the 1970s that are considered the best Steeler teams ever. Remember that 2008 team? The same stability that reinforced the 1970s teams has carried over into the new millennium as well. The Steelers, under the same ownership, a consistent coaching staff and a core of key players from the mid-2000s to present have added to the Steeler legacy. Several recent and current players can be mentioned amongst Steeler greats such as Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and Franco Harris. At the same time there are several ex-Steelers of recent memory that Steeler Nation would like to forget. The following list will highlight the best and worst Steelers players since 2000.
15 Best: James Farrior LB
James Farrior began and played out of position for a dysfunctional New York Jets team from 1997 to 2001. After having a career year with the Jets in 2001, he signed with the Steelers and moved back his natural position of inside linebacker in 2002. Farrior’s presence bolstered the linebacker corps of Joey Porter, James Gildon and Kendrell Bell, forming one of the most feared run-stopping units in the league. Farrior remained the constant in the linebacker unit until 2011, ultimately recoding 731 solo tackles and 30 quarterback sacks. The 2008 – 2009 season served to be one of his most productive, both regular and postseason. In the postseason, Farrior would record 25 combined tackles pacing the Steeler’s run defense and eventual Super Bowl win against the Arizona Cardinals.
14 Worst: Troy Edwards WR
Troy Edwards put up video game stats for Louisiana Tech, averaging 1900 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns for his junior and senior years. The Steelers thought those numbers would translate into big NFL numbers with his first round selection (13th overall) in the 1999 draft. Playing with veteran receivers Hines Ward and Courtney Hawkins, Edwards would enjoy a productive rookie season with 700 yards and five touchdowns in 1999. However, his production and playing time slipped the following year as his “freestyle” approach didn’t mesh with the Steelers grinding style of play. Edwards would find little playing time amid Ward and emerging receiving stars Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El. As a result, he was traded to the St. Louis Rams in 2002 and retired from football following a stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2005.
13 Best: Jerome Bettis RB
The “Bus” truly went out in style before breaking down—literally. Jerome Bettis was a workhorse running back fixture for the Steelers from 1996 to 2001, where he averaged 300-plus carries and close to 1,300 years a season. He hit the proverbial running-back wall at age 30 and would be more of a goal-line back during the latter part of his career. However, the arrival of running back speedster Willie Parker kept Bettis fresh for his final season and crowning postseason moment in the 2005-2006 season. Bettis would contribute a touchdown in three straight postseason games for the wildcard Steelers during their 2006 Super Bowl run and eventual win against the Seattle Seahawks. Bettis, the second leading rusher in Steelers history, would leave the game as a six-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl Champion.
12 Worst: LeGarrette Blount RB
The former Oregon Duck came into the NFL undrafted with the Tennessee Titans and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers until finally settling with the Patriots in 2013. Blount’s pounding of opponents to close the 2013 season and part of the Patriot’s postseason got the attention of the Steelers who signed the free agent to a two-year deal worth close to $4 million in 2014. He was expected to be complimentary power-back to speedster LeVeon Bell. The two backs took their one-two punch to the next level by getting arrested for marijuana possession on the way to the airport at the start of the 2014 season. Blount would be released during the 2014 season due to other team misconduct and claimed off waivers by the Patriots. Blount tallied just 266 yards and two touchdowns during his Steelers tenure.
11 Best: Hines Ward WR
Hines Ward saw his fair share of Pittsburgh quarterbacks early in his career—Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomczak, Kent Graham and Tommy Maddox—but was still able to produce at a high-level. When Maddox went down in 2004, rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found out that Ward was not only a go-to receiver but an unheralded—albeit controversial—blocker as well. Ward would establish himself as Roethlisberger’s possession receiver for the next several years. Ward lit up the 2005—2006 postseason catching three touchdowns in four games along with his 123-yard MVP performance in the 2006 Super Bowl. He would go on to win another Super Bowl with the Steelers in 2009 and play in another in 2011. Ward retired as the Steelers all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns in 2011.
10 Worst: Josh Scobee K
Josh Scobee brought his respectable career field goal percentage to the Steelers via trade from the Jacksonville Jaguars before the 2015 season. Things started unsteady as Scobee missed his first two field goal attempts in a 28 – 21 loss against the New England Patriots during Week One. Things unraveled further in a Week Four home game against the Baltimore Ravens. Scobee missed two field goals towards the end of the game that would have put the Ravens away. Instead, the Ravens tied the game, sending it to overtime. In overtime, the Steeler’s coaches opted for a fourth down conversion play instead of allowing Scobee to kick a 50-plus yard kick for the win. The Steelers failed on the conversion allowing the Ravens to set up and make a field goal for the win. Unfortunately, Scobee was released a few days later.
9 Best: Troy Polamalu SS
Troy Polamalu’s engine was constantly revving. He was all over the field and a feared ballhawk, given his 32 career interceptions. Moreover, he was a hard hitter, amassing 770 combined tackles. Those are linebacker numbers from the safety position! Polamalu reinvented the position with his versatility at stopping the run while alternating between man-to-man and zone coverages against the pass. His frenzied, albeit haphazard play, was oftentimes his undoing given his myriad of injuries. Those injuries may have kept him from being mentioned as the greatest safety of all time. Certainly, he was one of the best Steeler’s safeties of all time. Polamalu‘s 40-yard touchdown interception off Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the 2008 AFC Conference Championship game won the game and propelled Pittsburgh to the 2009 Super Bowl.
8 Worst: Tommy Maddox QB
Working part-time as an insurance salesman, quarterback Tommy Maddox was far removed from NFL action when he signed with the Steelers in 2001. Fresh off successful stints with the arena league and the now defunct XFL, Maddox was signed to backup Kordell Stewart who was already mired in quarterback controversy. In 2002, Maddox took over for an ineffective Stewart in a Week Three comeback win against the Cleveland Browns. Maddox retained the starting job and led the Steelers to the playoffs, eventually losing in the division round to the Tennessee Titans. Stewart would leave the Steelers the following season, turning the reigns over to Maddox. Maddox would regress however, and lead the team to a 6 – 10 finish. Maddox would open the 2004 season as the starter but his sprained elbow in Week Three changed the course of Steeler history for the better.
7 Best: James Harrison LB
James Harrison will forever be remembered for his 100-yard touchdown interception off Arizona Cardinal quarterback Kurt Warner in Pittsburgh’s 2009 Super Bowl win. Just as remarkable is the story of his path to playing linebacker with the Steelers. Harrison was undrafted and languished on the Steeler’s practice squad for two years, being released twice for his struggles. He joined the Ravens but was released only to join the Steelers for a second time. The second time was the charm as Harrison was able to start a few games and earned a Super Bowl ring in 2005. He became a full-time starter in 2007, averaging 10 sacks and 95 combined tackles a year until his signing with the Bengals in 2013. Harrison retired before start of the 2014 season but would come back to the Steelers for a third time.
6 Worst: Cedrick Wilson WR
Cedrick Wilson was a mixed bag for the Steelers. Wilson flashed his kick return and receiving potential in 2003 and 2004, respectively, for the struggling San Francisco 49ers. In 2005, the enticed Steelers signed Wilson for $8 million over four years. Wilson played a bit role for the Steelers during the 2005 regular season. However, he blew up for a combined 196 yards and two touchdowns in Steeler wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and the Denver Broncos en route to the Steeler’s 2005 - 2006 Super Bowl berth and win. Wilson started more games during the 2006 season but would go back to playing sparingly in 2007. Wilson would be released before the 2008 season for charges of simple assault on his ex-girlfriend. Wilson would find more legal trouble in 2008 as he was charged for test taking and social security fraud for a teacher examination.
5 Best: Alan Faneca RG
Deservedly, offensive linemen need love, too! Alan Faneca anchored the guard position and was responsible for opening lanes in the Steeler’s vaunted run game from 1998 to 2007. The former 1998 first round pick out of Louisiana State University played 270 regular and postseason games for the Steelers, winning one Super Bowl ring, garnering seven Pro Bowl selections and being named NFL All Pro nine times. Faneca’s blocking allowed for the longest Super Bowl run in history, a 75-yard scamper by Willie Parker that helped Pittsburgh to a 21 – 10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIII. To the dismay of Steeler’s fans and running backs, Faneca signed with the New York Jets in 2008. To further underscore the lineman’s impact, Faneca would help Jets running back Thomas Jones—who was north of age 30—enjoy his best two seasons as a pro.
4 Worst: Sean Mahan C
Steeler history is rich with stellar play from the center position with names such as Webster, Dawson and Hartings who commandeered the line. Unfortunately, Tampa Bay Buccaneer free agent center Sean Mahan did not live up to the aforementioned names and the five-year, $17 million contract the Steelers gave him for the 2007 season. With Mahan leading the line quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 47 times for a 10.4% sack percentage—the highest of his career. In the same season, a home playoff loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars made matters worse for Mahan. Not only was he flagged for a holding penalty that negated a successful two point conversion but Roethlisberger was sacked six times and pressured into three interceptions. At season’s end, the Steelers signed a new center, Jeff Hartwig, and traded Mahan back to Tampa Bay for a draft pick.
3 Best: Heath Miller TE
Forget fantasy numbers from guys like Gates, Gonzalez or Gronkowski. Heath Miller was a throwback tight-end. Whether it was pass blocking, run blocking or a clutch grab over the middle, “Heeeath” was not only quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s safety net but the Steeler’s safety valve. Miller and Roethlisberger established their connection quickly during the prior’s rookie year in 2005, catching six touchdowns. Miller would catch 39 more touchdowns over his 11 year career in addition to nabbing 592 receptions for 6,569 yards—all Steeler records for the tight end position. He was a perfect fit for the Steeler’s grinding style of play up to 2009. As the Steelers went to the air more from 2010 to 2015, Miller was tasked to provide more pass protection in the wake of offensive line injuries and calls for deep throws. Heath Miller retired in 2015 as a two-time Super Bowl champion.
2 Worst: Kent Graham QB
Saying the Steeler’s quarterbacking situation was in flux before Ben Roethlisberger’s arrival is putting it mildly. In 2000, free agent Kent Graham was named the starting quarterback over Kordell Stewart. Stewart struggled the previous two years due the team’s rare offensive player and coaching overhaul. However, then head coach Bill Cowher thought a change in quarterback was needed to jumpstart the team. Graham led the Steelers to an 0 – 3 start, completing 48% of his passes and averaged 208 yards per game with zero touchdowns. He was replaced by Stewart at the end of the third game due to injury. Stewart led the Steelers to two wins during Graham’s recovery, thus igniting a quarterback controversy. Graham returned to the starter’s role, struggled again and was supplanted as starter by Stewart after two games. The Steelers narrowly missed the playoffs.
1 Best: Ben Roethlisberger QB
Yeah, easy! In 2004, Ben Roethlisberger was thrust into the Steeler’s quarterback position due to Tommy Maddox’s injury in Week Three of the regular season. Roethlisberger’s 13 straight wins as starter led the Steeler’s to 15 -1 record, a playoff berth and Rookie of the Year honors for the young signal caller. That season would just be a tune-up as Roethlisberger guided the 2005 - 2006 Wild Card Steelers back to the playoffs and to the Super Bowl where the Steeler defense stifled the Seattle Seahawks, ending the Steel City’s 26-year championship drought. Big Ben would transition from game manager to gun-slinger on the way to two more Super Bowl appearances in 2009 and 2011. The Steelers would win the 2009 Super Bowl against the Arizona Cardinals on his arm and lose on it during the 2011 matchup with the Green Bay packers. Nonetheless, Roethlisberger is amongst the elite with names like Brees, Rodgers and Brady with two Super Bowl rings and career projections for over 60,000 yards passing and 400 touchdowns.