The Steelers have had a lot of great players over the years. But not everyone has been a star right out of the gate. In some cases (see Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu) it can take a year or two to get your feet under you and learn the nuances of the pros.
But then there are the players who comprise this list.
The six, plus the three honorable mentions, had no trouble making the leap from college to the professional ranks. They were rookies of the year, Pro Bowlers or even All-Pros from the start.
The Steelers have won six rookie of the year awards since it was first handed out in 1967 to the best offensive and defensive rookies in the league. You should know the 2004 offensive winner, that would be the team’s current quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. The rest of the list will have plenty of names you know, although you may not know they were rookies of the year. Of course, winning Rookie of the Year award doesn’t necessarily put you on this list. After all, you won’t find a single winner from the offensive line in the history of the award. But we’ve included one here after he put together a phenomenal rookie campaign.
The Steelers have had one quarterback (the aforementioned Roethlisberger), one running back and one wide receiver win the offensive Rookie of the Year award. On the defensive side, it’s been two linebackers and a defensive end. Five of the six winners are represented here. The only one not to make the list? Louis Lipps, who won the award in 1984 after a phenomenal season which saw him set the record for punt return yardage by a rookie and rack up 10 touchdowns and 931 yards from scrimmage. It’s a good reminder of some of the legends that the Steelers have had on the team over the years.
Also just missing the cut were JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had 917 yards and seven touchdowns his rookie campaign and Darren Perry, who despite being an eighth-round pick, started every game for the Steelers in 1992 and had six interceptions.
Honorable mentions: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darren Perry, Louis Lipps
6. Jack Lambert
Taken in the second-round of the 1974 NFL Draft, the Kent State product acclimated himself pretty nicely to the league in his rookie year. Starting every game for one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, Lambert won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award and helped the Steelers to a 10-3-1 record and their first ever Super Bowl victory. Lambert could probably be higher but we’re docking him a few spots because it was one of two years he didn’t make the Pro Bowl (his last year when he only started three games was his other). By his own lofty standards, it was a down year.
5. Joe Greene
We could probably put Joe Greene here just on reputation alone. But it turns out he was incredibly productive from day one in the NFL, too. Drafted to the moribund Steelers, the team, even with Greene anchoring the defensive line went 1-13 in his first year. The NFL didn’t keep stats on tackles, sacks or forced fumbles back then, so it’s hard to judge just exactly how good he was without seeing the film. But from all accounts, he was a heck of a player from the start of his NFL career. In his rookie year, Greene played every game, was named as the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and received an invite to the Pro Bowl.
An All-Pro caliber player from basically the moment he stepped on to the field, Maurkice Pouncey’s 2010 was one of the best ever by a Steelers rookie lineman. He started every game in the regular season as well as two playoff games before getting injured in the AFC Championship game against the Jets and subsequently missing the Super Bowl. Despite the disappointment of not finishing the season, Pouncey was named to the Pro Bowl and garnered second-team All-Pro status.
What could have been if not for a series of debilitating injuries. Kendrell Bell was an absolute monster in his rookie year. Drafted in the second-round, Bell came into the league with a vengeance. The Georgia product had nine sacks, 82 tackles and a ridiculous 23 tackles for loss (second in the league behind Michael Strahan‘s 24.) For comparisons sake, the 2019 leader, Aaron Donald, had 20. Bell was named the defensive rookie of the year and was named to the Pro Bowl and as a second-team All-Pro. Unfortunately, that would be a high water mark for the linebacker.
There wasn’t much adjustment for Franco Harris when he burst onto the scene with the Steelers in 1972. The 1st round pick had one of his finest seasons as an NFL player, putting up 1055 yards rushing on a gaudy 5.6 yards per attempt, as well as 180 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns. For his efforts, Harris was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Adding to the honors, he was also chosen for the Pro Bowl (his first of eight consecutive trips) and named a second-team All-Pro. Harris was so good he even enlisted Frank Sinatra as a general into the “Franco’s Army”.
1. Ben Roethlisberger
The city had high expectations for Ben Roethlisberger after the Steelers selected him with the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. But no one expected the young quarterback out of Miami (Ohio) to lead the team to 15-1. After taking over for Tommy Maddox after he was injured in week two against the Ravens, Roethlisberger went 13-0, the best mark in NFL history by a rookie, and an appearance in the AFC Championship game. Roethlisberger lead the league with four 4th quarter comebacks and five game-winning drive. He was unanimously named the Offensive Rookie of the Year, becoming the first quarterback in 34 years to achieve that honor. Despite the AFC Championship game loss to the Patriots, Roethlisberger quickly established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the league, a mantle he’s carried to this day. Steelers fans wouldn’t have to wait long for that championship, either, as Roethlisberger would help the team win their fifth championship just a year later.
Steelers Postgame Show: Are Second Half Issues a Concern Despite 6-0 Record?
Despite it getting close at the end, the Steelers found a way to win again and are now sitting pretty at 6-0. Host Mike Asti welcomed Daniel Valente, who serves as a football editor at The Score, to discuss a game Pittsburgh almost let slip away.
What changed in the second half to allow it to become a game? Why was JuJu Smith-Schuster able to be more involved in the Steelers offense? Where do the Steelers rank among the best teams in the NFL, and how much does that still rely on what they do next week against Baltimore. Mike and Daniel answered all those questions and more on this Steelers edition of Pittsburgh Postgame on Pittsburgh Sports Live.
Scouting Report: Play-Action Game Fuels Titans Offense
Heading into Week 7, the Steelers have their first 5-0 record since 1978. However, they face their stiffest test yet in the undefeated Tennessee Titans in Nashville. Even after a strong performance in Week 6 against the Browns, the Steelers are reeling from the loss of Devin Bush. Meanwhile, the Titans are going to be missing their best offensive lineman in Left Tackle Taylor Lewan. What are the Steelers facing as they head into an undefeated clash on Sunday?
Titans Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith has been with the organization for nearly a decade at this point. However, he has his own unique scheme that was influenced by the former offensive coordinator and now Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur. The Titans run out of primarily a run-based offense supplemented by play action. In fact, most of the time, this is a team that runs 12 or 21 personnel and only keeps two wide receivers on the field as a result. They have a clear brand of physicality up front that builds off of Derrick Henry and allows Ryan Tannehill to shred defenses behind the run defense as they try to slow down Henry.
The Titans only use one wide receiver here and are in 21 personnel. They love to get their tight ends involved in the passing game over the middle of the field. However, crossers, curls, digs, and other key routes over the middle of the field with their receivers are huge too. They pull out a curl here and get an easy first down as a result of the linebackers keying in on the run and vacating the space behind them. They make everything look the same and give a lot of eye candy pre and post-snap to throw linebackers off to vacate those middle of the field zones. The stress placed on those defenders in the box is immense.
In terms of running the football, the Titans run a multi-dimensional scheme. Gap and zone runs are included, but with a big back like Henry, they run more outside zone than one would expect. In fact, the Titans on average run more zone than they do gap, as the split zone and inside zone series in their playbook are extensive. Duo is another favorite of Smith’s to pull out. This play above is a spilt zone run, and they get the linebackers and safety to flare out with the tight end on that flare motion. As such, it opens up a huge gap and lane for Henry to run right through. Smith gets creative with this eye candy post-snap to create throwing or running lanes.
The last key concept in the Titans offense is space. The Steelers have a great pass rush and may be able to force the Titans into their shotgun looks and plain dropbacks as a result. In which case, that is when they rely on space and traffic to cause havoc. Much like the Steelers, they love to utilize space on the boundary out of tight splits and bunch sets. Creating traffic out of these bunch sets is a key way they often convert on third down and medium. The tight split on this play allows Corey Davis enough room to attack that leverage and get open on the out route. It gives an advantage to the receiver.
As far as the defense goes, the Titans run a 3-4 scheme with potent outside linebackers to boot. Mike Vrabel does take some influence from Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots with this defense, make no mistake. As such, the Titans are mostly a Cover 3 and Cover 2 team that likes to use their linebackers and safeties as exotic blitzers. The key to this defense is working is the disguising of coverages. A lot of Tennessee’s turnovers this season have been off of these disguised coverages, and Ben Roethlisberger has to be careful to not get trapped by one of these on Sunday.
Players to Watch
QB Ryan Tannehill
The biggest threat to the Steelers in this game, Tannehill is the guy that takes this offense to the next level. Make no mistake, while the system does fit Tannehill like a glove, he has played at an extremely high level this season. Tannehill has been smart, efficient, and more importantly, he has taken care of the football thus far on the season. With his athleticism, Tannehill can extend the play or take off when needed as well. It is his combination of smarts and precise accuracy that make him such a dangerous passer to all levels of the field.
RB Derrick Henry
If Tannehill is the guy that elevates the team, then Henry is the engine that allows Tannehill the flexibility to elevate that offense. Henry is a big, bruising back that is now for running over guys and stiff-arming them into oblivion, much like he did to Josh Norman two weeks ago. For a man so big, Henry is fast and quick as well. This is either the best or second-best running back the Steelers have faced this season, and with fancy window dressing and schematics to help him, Henry is going to be an issue.
WR A.J. Brown
A star that broke onto the scene last year, A.J. Brown is becoming an even better receiver in his second season. He lives in the middle of the field, and more importantly, Brown is a menace after the catch. With a dense frame and great contact balance, Brown is able to break tackles and evade tacklers with ease all game. His physicality allows him to separate at a high level and create space for open throwing windows. The Steelers will have to be worried about Brown all game.
S Kevin Byard
There are lots of talented players on the Titans defense, but safety Kevin Byard is a former All-Pro and a certified ballhawk on the back end of the defense. A rangy free safety, Byard allows the Titans to switch up and disguise their coverages with his rare athleticism, ball-hawking skills, and instincts. The Steelers will have to be wary of Byard at all times as he can change the momentum of a game in one play.
Matchups to Watch
Malcolm Butler vs Chase Claypool
This is a matchup that will fly under the radar, but this one could be a huge advantage for the Steelers. The Titans will be without speedy cornerback Adoree Jackson, and that means if the Steelers want it, they can line up Chase Claypool on Malcolm Butler. Butler has struggled with faster receivers this year, and was burnt by Will Fuller for a big touchdown last week on a miscommunication. Claypool’s size and speed is a huge mismatch in this matchup and it would not be surprising to see an explosive play from this matchup.
Robert Spillane vs Titans Tight Ends
Tasked with covering David Njoku last week, Spillane rose to the occasion in the short zones he was asked to man. However, Tennessee attacks up the seam and over the middle, which is a place where Spillane was not tested last week. That aspect of his coverage ability is currently unknown. With Devin Bush out and the Steelers missing that athleticism, it would stand to reason that this Spillane’s audition and will be huge in determining how the Steelers approach the linebacker situation in the future.
Ty Sambrello vs Bud Dupree
With Taylor Lewan out for the season, backup left tackle Ty Sambrello will take over his spot. J.J. Watt did get a strip-sack off of Sambrello last week, but after that, Sambrello settled in quite nicely. Now, he will be tested with the explosive and powerful Bud Dupree who leads the Steelers in sacks up to this point. It will be a matchup where Dupree has the edge and in similar matchups this year, he has taken advantage of these matchups.
Steelers Sign P Jordan Berry, Elevate Trey Edmunds, Jayrone Elliott from Practice Squad
The Steelers officially signed veteran punter Jordan Berry, who previously punted for Pittsburgh from 2015 to 2020, and elevated two players from the practice squad.
Berry came in for a visit this past week after the Steelers released veteran punter Dustin Colquitt, who was signed to replace Berry right before the start of the regular season.
Despite the team’s 5-0 record, Mike Tomlin hinted Colquitt’s struggles could trigger a change at punter.
In other news, running back Trey Edmunds and linebacker Jayrone Elliott have both been elevated from the practice squad ahead of the team’s Week 7 game in Tennessee against the Titans. This marks the second time Edmunds has been elevated from the practice squad this season.