- Scott Brown, ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter
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PITTSBURGH – Adroit drafting and the nurturing of supreme talent gave rise to the defense that had the nickname “Steel Curtain” bestowed on it as the Pittsburgh Steelers were claiming ownership of the 1970s.
But Chuck Noll’s acumen as a coach also shaped the defense that tormented opposing offenses and led the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles in a span of six seasons.
“We had some of the most amazingly complicated defenses I have ever seen,” said linebacker Andy Russell, who made seven Pro Bowls during a 12-year career and played on the Steelers’ first two Super Bowl-winning teams. “I remember telling [former San Francisco 49ers coach] Bill Walsh about some of the things we did and he couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘You couldn’t possibly do that.’ Well, we did.”
The play the Steelers called in the huddle, Russell said, was almost irrelevant, because the linebackers and defensive backs would switch to a different defense based on the offense’s formation or what it did before the snap.
What made the Steelers unique is that the back seven players all had to recognize the same thing and switch to the same defense without anyone calling it out.
The discipline Noll instilled in his players and his fixation on details made it work most of the time.
“We might change a defense three or four times before the ball was snapped,” Russell said. “All seven guys had to know what it was because you couldn’t yell it out. Not that we never made mistakes. Sometimes we did. It didn’t always work, but it was a pretty impressive defensive setup.”
Russell will be among the many Steelers who will pay tribute to Noll, who passed away Friday night at the age of 82, by remembering his greatness.
And by telling stories like the one Russell recounted from Noll’s first training camp with the Steelers in 1969.
The Steelers had gone 18-49-3 in the five seasons before Noll’s arrival in Pittsburgh, and Russell said the players couldn’t figure out why winning had proved to be so elusive for them.
“So Coach Noll’s first meeting, I’ll never forget the speech he gave,” said Russell, who became a highly successful businessman after retiring from football in 1976. “He gets up and says, ‘I’ve been watching the game film since I took the job, and I can tell you guys why you’ve been losing.’ You could have heard a pin drop in that room. He says, ‘The reason you have been losing is you’re not any good.’”
Russell then laughed.
“Those aren’t the words he used,” Russell said, “but that’s what he meant, and he said, ‘I’m going to get rid of most of you.’ Five of us made it from that room to the Super Bowl in ’74.”