Content Exchange

It really would be unfair to dig up that old quote by James Harrison from the first day he reported to practice for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the spring of 2002.

Asked about Jack Lambert, who had matriculated from the same school -- Kent State -- as Harrison, the undrafted rookie ripped into the legend.

Not only would it be unfair to bring back the contempt the young and surly Harrison harbored toward someone he felt should've come back to visit his old school and talked to his old team, it would break censorship laws.

Besides, the two linebackers have a strong bond these days.

The topic only comes up due to the career circle being completed by the 38-year-old Harrison, who's been propelled into a historical argument here because of his recent rise to the throne as the Steelers' all-time leading sack man.

The question becomes: Where does Harrison rank among the proud tradition of Steelers linebackers?

For decades, Steelers fans have reflexively ranked Lambert and Jack Ham at the top. It's usually a coin toss for most, but when the stats and rings and honors and momentous moments are put on paper, Lambert ranks very high.

And that's the same reason Harrison must now be considered among the elite of the elite.

Let's give that a minute to marinate as I put to paper a Steelers Linebacking Top 10, but in reverse order so as to build the suspense.

Of course, parsing 10 from, oh, the 15 truly significant linebackers in team history isn't much easier.


I'll get this one out of the way just to ease my own conscience. Someone had asked on social media why I hadn't listed Gildon in a previous top 10, and I really had no good reason. The waves of responders had one VERY good reason: Gildon held the all-time franchise record for sacks with 77 before Harrison came along a couple weeks ago to break it in Cleveland. Gildon never played in a Super Bowl but did lead the team in sacks four times from 1998-2001. His longevity and production keep the Gale Sayers-like short-term flashes such as Mike Merriweather, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown and LaMarr Woodley, and even the rising and phenomenal Ryan Shazier, off this list. Dang.


When the Steelers extended the contract of reserve inside linebacker Vince Williams this past offseason, obituaries of Timmons began to appear on the web. Yes, he's in the final year of an expensive contract, and, financially, another contract for Timmons might not make much sense to the mathematicians in the media these days. But here he is again, leading the Steelers in tackles, and by 35 percent of his total. Veteran players kid that Timmons receives preferential treatment as Mike Tomlin's "first born" since he was Tomlin's first draft pick, but since entering the league in 2007 Timmons has missed only two games, those in 2009. He's played in 115 consecutive regular-season games and started 96 consecutive regular-season games, both highs among active NFL linebackers. He's taking aim at his fifth consecutive season as the team's leading tackler, and sixth overall. He's played in every postseason game possible, won a ring as a top reserve in one Super Bowl and started in another. He's a quiet and friendly and explosive athlete who just goes out every week and plays at a high level. And he's still only 30 years old.


Captain Kirk's greatest performance may have been in Super Bowl XXX when the ILB spearheaded a unit that allowed the Dallas Cowboys only 254 yards of offense and the second-lowest rushing total (by 6 yards) of its 4-year mini-dynasty. The Cowboys rushed for 56 yards on 25 carries that day as the Steelers held Emmitt Smith to a season-low 49 yards on 18 carries. Kirkland was the tackles leader that day with 10, including 8 solo tackles and a fourth-quarter sack that wrecked a series after the Steelers had cut the deficit to 20-17. But another Larry Brown interception two plays later led to a second 2-play Cowboys touchdown drive and Kirkland couldn't win the only ring for which he played. The big man -- who eventually played at over 300 pounds and joked that he was over 400 -- was a freak of nature in that he could cover receivers deep down the field while providing the "Blitzburgh" Steelers of the 1990s with its most dominant run-stuffer.


The late and legendary Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope lobbied routinely for Russell to be voted into the Hall of Fame, but it hasn't come to pass. A case can certainly be made for Russell, the "hunch blitzer" among one of the greatest linebacking trios -- Lambert and Ham included -- in league history. Russell's career accomplishments stretched from intercepting a pass in the 1963 loss to the New York Giants -- which determined a trip to the NFL Championship Game -- to starting for the 1976 defense, which many, including Lambert, consider the greatest defense in team history, even though it didn't produce a championship. But Russell won two rings before retiring. He also holds the NFL record for longest fumble return in postseason history. His 93-yard return for a touchdown against the Baltimore Colts in the 1975 playoffs is also regarded as the longest timed play in NFL history by former teammates who joke about the 34-year-old Russell's speed, or lack thereof, at that point in his career. Russell was a team MVP in 1971 and was named to seven Pro Bowls, in spite of a career abbreviated by a two-year stint in the Army.


Perhaps the smartest free-agent signing ever by the Steelers, Farrior came aboard in 2002 and was moved to his college position, inside in a 3-4. The New York Jets had drafted him eighth overall in 1997 but he didn't take to playing outside in a 4-3, so the Steelers got the defensive captain of two Super Bowl wins and three appearances at a cut rate. "Potsie" was the cool customer in the middle of a defensive storm, and the player to whom DC Dick LeBeau always turned to provide words of wisdom before departing the locker room. Farrior was the 2004 runner-up to Ed Reed as NFL Defensive Player of the Year when he was named to the first of his two Pro Bowls. He put together eight consecutive 100-tackle seasons and his best game may have been the greatest upset in team history, the 2005 playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts. Farrior led the Steelers that day with 10 tackles, including 2.5 sacks of Peyton Manning. One, on a third down, set up the touchdown that put the Steelers ahead 21-3, and the partial third sack, on fourth down, put Jerome Bettis at the 2-yard line, from where he fumbled and set up Ben Roethlisberger's greatest tackle.


Maybe the meanest man to ever wear the black and gold, his intimidating presence was worth more than what's on the stats sheet. Lloyd led the Steelers in sacks only twice, and with relatively small numbers: 7 in 1989 and 6.5 in 1992. He ranks eighth all-time with 53.5 sacks, but with a disproportionate number of forced fumbles, 36, the most since the team began tracking the stat in 1987. That's the year Lloyd was drafted out of Fort Valley State in the sixth round. Injuries wrecked his first two seasons, as well as much of his last two, but the seven years in between were marked by five Pro Bowls and enough emotion and mayhem to force his election to the All-Time Steelers Team as part of the franchise's 75th anniversary celebration in 2007. Lloyd, Russell and three of the next four linebackers were so honored.


"Peezy" was forced out by Tomlin in part due to the simmering potential of Harrison, but Porter went on to play five more seasons, record 38 more sacks and make one more Pro Bowl. Porter was to Farrior in the 2000s what Lloyd was to Kirkland in the mid 1990s -- the intimidating presence and fiery leader next to the more reserved signalcaller. Porter even hopped on the Baltimore Ravens' team bus following one game in 2003 to confront Ray Lewis, who had mocked the injured Porter during the game. It should be mentioned that Porter was out with a gunshot wound suffered in Denver just before the start of the 2003 season. He was a Pro Bowler in 2002, 2004 and 2005 and recorded 60 sacks in his eight seasons with the team. He was the guiding defensive spirit during the 2005 championship run as he sacked Manning 1.5 times on the Colts' penultimate drive in the big upset, had a strip sack in the "They SHOT me in Denver!" AFC Championship Game, and then put the pre-game Super Bowl media burden on his wide shoulders by mocking Seattle TE Jerramy Stevens throughout the week. Stevens dropped several passes as Porter won his only ring.


Ham may have been the smartest, most technically sound outside linebacker in the history of the game. He also had what his coaches called the fastest 10-yard speed on the entire "Steel Curtain" defense. He was named first-team All-Pro six times with eight straight Pro Bowls back when few backed out of Pro Bowls to allow seemingly half the league to be so named. Ham had only 25 sacks, but those Steelers didn't blitz much because Joe Greene and Co. could "get there with four." Ham did have an eye-popping 32 interceptions, which ranks third all-time for linebackers. He played 12 years, won four rings, started three Super Bowls and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1988. Up to this point, it's seemingly been either him or Lambert as the greatest Steelers linebacker, but Harrison has disrupted that with more memorable moments. Do you remember a special Ham moment? I don't. Of course, students of the game would no doubt luxuriate in Ham's sublime game tape. However, the call here is Harrison at No. 2, and the call is, well, final. For now.


The top sack man in an era when sacks were/are necessary to the success of the defense. Harrison's numbers were curtailed by a lack of pedigree that caused him to be released three times after signing was an undrafted free agent in 2002. Of course, it didn't help Harrison that he didn't like his coaches, or his teammates, or even Jack Lambert. Harrison didn't like much but kept coming back and getting better. His first signature moment was the slamming a fan who ran onto the field in Cleveland on Christmas Eve 2005. He won a ring shortly thereafter as a core special-teamer but didn't really emerge until Tomlin took over in 2007. Harrison's greatest game may have occurred that season on a Monday night when he had 3.5 sacks, forced three fumbles, recovered another and intercepted a pass against the Ravens. "There aren’t many guys capable of taking a game over that I’ve witnessed first-hand," Tomlin recently told "And he took that football game over." Harrison's signature resume stamp is his 100-yard interception return late in the first half of Super Bowl 43 that's regarded as the greatest play in Super Bowl history. "In a James sort of a way he was very flat-line about it," Tomlin told the site. "He scores, he’s laying flat on his back, and he’s not getting up. I go out there, the trainers go out there because he’s down. I get over to him, and I say, 'James.' He looks up at me, and he says, ‘I’m tired, boss.' In a James sort of way, that’s all he had to say. He’s flat on his back after just making one of the legendary plays in football history, and that’s what he said." Harrison was in the weight room three days later getting ready for 2009.


Lambert had a similar Super Bowl moment when he spiked Dallas safety Cliff Harris for patting Steelers kicker Roy Gerela on the head after a miss in the Steelers' second Super Bowl. The play spurred the Steelers to a win, as did so many of Lambert's fiery moments as the emotional fury behind four title runs. Lambert not only roamed freely and quickly between the tackles to destroy I-backs trying to run on the "Curtain," he could get deep in coverage. His downfield interception of Vince Ferragamo may have been the key moment of the Steelers' fourth championship. Lambert played 11 seasons with 9 Pro Bowls, 7 first-team All-Pros, NFL Rookie of the Year (1974) and two Defensive Player of the Year awards (1976, 1983). He also started four Super Bowl wins. Here's what Russell told Sports Illustrated in 1983: "He brought a whole new concept to the position, and that’s why, for me anyway, he’s the greatest there has ever been. His first step is never wrong, his techniques have always been perfect. His greatness has nothing to do with his popular image." But, of course, his popular image was riveting. For both of those reasons, Lambert remains the greatest Steelers linebacker.

Jim Wexell is the publisher of the Scout Network's

This article originally ran on