If Steelers Free Agent Jarvis Jones has an NFL Future, It Won’t Be in Pittsburgh

One of the most unfair things you can ask any athlete to do is to follow a legend. Last spring, Tony Defeo chronicled the Steelers careers of David Little and Walter Abercromie, two unfortunate souls brought into the NFL with the humble request that they replace Hall of Famers Jack Lambert and Franco Harris.

Which brings us to the case of Jarvis Jones, the man the Steelers turned to in the 2013 NFL Draft after they cut James Harrison with the expectation that he would fill the legend’s shoes.

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Jarvis Jones helps finish off Brock Osweiler in Steelers 2015 win over Broncos. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Jarvis Jones Steelers Career

Jarvisy Jones first move in Pittsburgh was to request jersey number 95, or the number that Greg Lloyd had donned. That was a bold statement made by the man the Steelers asked to replace James Harrison.

In the early going, it looked like Jarvis Jones’ actions on the field might live up to his request. People forget, but Jones authored what then BTSC editor Neal Coolong described as “an electrifying preseason campaign” in 2013. On opening day, Jarvis Jones dramatic, behind the line of scrimmage tackle of Chris Johnson was perhaps the only positive Pittsburgh took out of their disastrous loss to the Titans.

  • Things didn’t go so smoothly after that.

Jarvis Jones held down the starting spot until mid season, but the Steelers eventually decided that shifting Jason Worilds over to the left side and starting LaMarr Woodley on right gave them their best chance to win. 2014 started off strong for Jones has he recorded sacks in the season opener and the Steelers third game against Carolina.

In 2015 Jarvis Jones reclaimed his starting role, but split time with James Harrison. While Jones didn’t seem to be struggling, he certainly didn’t show signs that he could pressure the passer Pittsburgh needed him to. Nonetheless, the Steelers coaching staff and/or its public relationships team continued to feed journalists stories of how Jones continued to make gains in the running game, a trend that continued into 2016.

Ironically enough, it was Jarvis Jones failure against the run in the Steelers loss to the Cowboys ended his team as a starter as this tweet from Steel City Blitz’s @Steeldad makes painfully clear:

Within 48 hours Mike Tomlin was benching Jarvis Jones and starting James Harrison. The Steelers won their next 9 games, and as explained in our free agent profile of James Harrison, that is no coincidence.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Jarvis Jones

So, with all of that said, is there a case to be made, however theoretical, in favor of the Steelers resigning Jarvis Jones? Yes, in fact there is.

Think back to the Steelers 2015 playoff win over the Bengals. Everyone remembers Ryan Shazier strip of Jeremy Hill and Ross Cockrell’s recovery, but people forget that it was Jarvis Jones who cut across the field to tackle Hill. Jones also had a sack in the game, and made several key stops.

  • Likewise, Jarvis Jones played very strong goal line defense in the season finale vs. the Browns.

To simply label Jarvis Jones as a “bust” and write off his time in Pittsburgh would be a mistake. He has shown flashes, even if he hasn’t been consistent. He might not be a starting caliber linebacker in the Steelers system, but he still has some playmaking talent and Jarvis Jones could still serve as a valuable backup.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Jarvis Jones

Anthony Chickillo has 2.5 sacks in 7 career starts. Arthur Moats has 11.5 sacks in 20 starts in Pittsburgh. Bud Dupree has 8.5 sacks in 9 starts. James Harrison got 5 sacks starting just 7 games this past year. How has Jarvis Jones done?

  • Jarvis Jones has a mere six sacks in 35 career starts.

In watching Jarvis Jones this year the words of Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys famed personnel guru repeated echoed back. Looking at Jarvis Jones’ 40 time, Brandt concluded:

I think he’s one of those guys that when you’re rushing the passer, he’s going to almost get there, but not quite.

Jarvis Jones validated Gil Brandt’s prediction over and over again during the 2016 season. The experiment has been replicated, repeatedly. And there’s only one possible conclusion: The Jarvis Jones experiment has failed.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Jarvis Jones

There’s no suspense and no mystery behind this Steelers 2017 free agent decision. The Steelers Christmas show down with the Ravens was the franchise’s biggest regular season game since 2010 and Mike Tomlin deactivated Jarvis Jones.

  • Mike Tomlin’s actions speak volumes.

Jarvis Jones has flashed enough to show that he does belong in the NFL. Perhaps in another system he can carve out a role as a starter or as a key role player. Teams don’t draft guys with the 17th pick to be mere role players. Jarvis Jones has had his chances in Pittsburgh to show he can do more, and he simply can’t.

It is time for both the Steelers and Jarvis Jones to move on.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Playoff History vs Miami Dolphins – Pittsburgh Looks to Even 1-2 Record

When the Pittsburgh Steelers welcome the Miami Dolphins to Heinz Field for the AFC Wild Card game Mike Tomlin’s team will be looking to even the Steelers playoff history vs the Miami Dolphins.

  • The Steelers and the Dolphins have clashed in the playoffs on three prior occasions, with the Steelers holding a 1-3 record.

The first time came at Three Rivers Stadium on New Year’s Eve 1972, in the AFC Championship game a week after the Immaculate Reception. The Super Steelers would clash in the post-season with Don Shula’s Dolphins again before they ended their run in the 1979 AFC Divisional Playoff game. And the final time Chuck Noll would face his mentor Don Shula in the playoffs came at the Orange Bowl in January 1985 in another AFC Championship match up.

Neither Steelers-Dolphins AFC Championship game resulted in a trip to the Super Bowl for Pittsburgh, but the Black and Gold’s luck in the AFC Divisional round was markedly better. Now we’ll take a look at all three, plus a peek at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Dolphins.

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Terry Bradshaw scrambles in Steelers 1972 AFC Championship loss to the Miami Dolphins. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1972 AFC Championship Game

January 31st, 1972 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 17, Miami 21

Given that I was only a few months old when during the first Steelers-Dolphins 1972 AFC Championship game From Black to Gold author Tim Gleason surprised me when he listed this game as the biggest playoff disappointment in Steelers history.

  • After all, isn’t the Steelers 1994 AFC Championship loss to the Chargers Steelers Nation’s biggest post-season heartbreak?

While the Alfred Pupunu game certainly ranks, Gleason makes a compelling case for the Steelers 1972 New Year’s eve loss to the Dolphins. But Gleason argues that Don Shula’s famous 1972 undefeated Dolphins squad was in fact rather beatable, benefiting from the third easiest regular season schedule in NFL history that only had them play one winning team.

If the Steelers showed they could hang with the Dolphins, Chuck Noll’s playoff novices made a host of rookie mistakes. The Steelers got on the board first, but ominously Terry Bradshaw fumbled the ball but was saved by Gerry Mullins diving on it in the end zone. As the game wore on, Pittsburgh proved to be less capable of picking up after itself.

  • Dwight White jumped off sides to negate a Jack Ham interception
  • Dolphins punter Larry Seiple caught the Steelers flat footed on a 37-yard fake punt scramble
  • Bob Griese came off the bench to hit Paul Warfield at Andy Russell’s expense to gouge the Steelers for 52 yards
  • A blocked 4th quarter field goal prevented the Steelers from narrowing the score early in the 4th quarter

Terry Bradshaw had left the game in the first half with a concussion, but Terry Hanratty was unable to move the offense. Bradshaw returned, pulled the Steelers to within a touchdown with a 12 yard pass to Al Young. However, Bradshaw would throw interceptions on the next two drives ending Pittsburgh’s comeback hopes.

Not only did this game blunt the euphoria the Immaculate Reception had created a week earlier, but it also coincided with the tragic death of Roberto Clemente, who was probably the best baseball player in Pittsburgh’s history.

1979 AFC Divisional Playoffs

December 30th, 1979 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 34, Miami 14

Legendary Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Vito Stellino likened this one to Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. And why not? The Pittsburgh Steelers ran up a 20-0 score before Miami had even run its 8th play from scrimmage. As the first quarter reached its end, Miami had 2 yards of total offense; Pittsburgh had amassed 180.

  • Even a bad call couldn’t disrupt the Steelers on that day.

In the third quarter the officials ruled that Dwayne Woodruff had touched a punt, when in fact replays showed he had not. The Dolphins recovered at the Steelers 11-yard line and scored their first touchdown of the day.

Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Tony Nathan, 1979 Steelers Dolphins AFC Divisional Playoff game, Steelers playoff history vs dolphins

Dwayne Woodruff and Mel Blount close in on Tony Nathan in the 1979 AFC Divisional Playoff. Photo Credit: miamidolphins.com

Not that it mattered. Terry Bradshaw immediately led them on a 69 yard drive that ended in a Rocky Bleier touchdown. Franco Harris opened the 4th quarter by scoring another touchdown. Miami answered with a touchdown of its own, but it was too little too late.

Jack Lambert, Joe Greene and Gary Dunn combined for 3 sacks on Bob Grisie while Woodruff and Dirt Winston intercepted him twice. After Super Bowl XIII Chuck Noll boldly proclaimed that “this team hasn’t peeked yet.”

The Steelers 1979 Divisional playoff win over the Dolphins proved that the Emperor had been right.

1984 AFC Championship Game

January 6th, 1985 @ The Orange Bowl
Pittsburgh 28, Miami 45

As EVERYONE knows Chuck Noll decided to draft Gabe Rivera instead of Dan Marino in the 1983 NFL Draft and his decision forced Pittsburgh to wait 20 years until it drafted its next Franchise Quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

  • But when the Steelers took to the field against the Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship, it seemed like that decision might not matter….  Seriously.

A year earlier, the 1983 Steelers had limped into the playoffs on the final throws remaining in Terry Bradshaw’s arm only to have the Los Angeles Raiders man handle them 38-10. Logic dictated that “Decline” would define the 1984 Steelers. Chuck Noll had other ideas.

  • The 1984 Steelers might have only earned a 9-7 record, but they upset Bill Walsh’s 49ers and the defending Super Bowl Champion Raiders along the way.

A week before, Mark Malone spearheaded a dramatic upset of John Elway and Denver Broncos in Mile High. Yes, the Steelers had lost to the 1984 Dolphins 31-7 in early October, but the Steelers string of giant-slaying upsets showed that Pittsburgh had improved since then didn’t it?

Steelers Dolphins 1984 AFC Championship, Dan Marino vs Steelers, Steelers Dolphins Playoff History

Dan Marino shreds Steelers in the 1984 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: miamiolphins.com

The Steelers intended to use the same game plan that had seen them through to wins over the 49ers and Broncos – dominate at the line of scrimmage, control the clock and blitz the living daylights out of the quarterback.

Unfortunately, that was about the only thing that worked for the Steelers. A week earlier against Denver, Keith Gary, David Little and Mike Merriweather had combined for 4 sacks of John Elway. The Steelers defense failed to land a glove on Dan Marino.

  • To make matters worse, the Steelers couldn’t protect the ball, and the Dolphins capitalized.

Dan Marino had time to torch the Steelers defense for touchdown passes of 40, 41 and 26 yards. For much of the first half however, the Steelers feigned that they could match the Dolphins score for score. But Malone had opened the first half giving up an interception that allowed Miami to score first, and he closed the first half with another allowing Marino to stitch together a 3-play drive that gave them a 24-14 halftime lead.

The Dolphins scored 3 more touchdowns during the second half as the Steelers defense was powerless to slow, let alone stop the Miami juggernaut. In his final playoff game, John Stallworth had 4 catches for 111 yards including a 65 yard touchdown catch giving him league records for post season touchdown receptions and hundred yard games.

And, although Dan Rooney’s outlook following this game was rather rosy, the 1984 AFC Championship loss to the Dolphins also officially confirmed that, by not drafting Dan Marino, the Steelers wouldn’t enjoy back-to-back Super Bowl eras.

Mike Tomlin’s Record Against the Dolphins

Although it has been a long time since the Steelers and Dolphins have faced off in the playoffs, Mike Tomlin is no stranger to Miami, holding a 3-2 record against the Dolphins.

In 2007, the Steelers and Dolphins met on a soggy, rainy Heinz Field during Mike Tomlin’s first year as coach where the Steelers eked out a 0-3 win. The 2009 Steelers closed out their disappointing season with a 30-24 win over Miami that was pleasant, but insufficient to get them into the playoffs. In 2010, the Steelers won a  23-22 contest with controversial swirling over whether a fumble had been a fumble.

  • Mike Tomlin has had a tougher time against Miami during the rebuild following Super Bowl XLV.

In 2013 the Steelers followed their Thanksgiving Day loss to the Ravens with an upset loss to the Dolphins — in the snow at Heinz Field. And back in October this same Pittsburgh Steelers team dropped a 30 to 15 decision to the Dolphins.

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Celebrating Tony Dungy’s Steelers Coaching Legacy

Tony Dungy now sits from his rightful perch in in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor he earned through his efforts in transforming the perennial loser Tampa Bay Buccaneers into contenders and for securing the first Super Bowl win by an African American head coach with the Indianapolis Colts.

  • But Tony Dungy’s roots run Black and Gold, a fact Dungy brought home by tapping Donniey Shell to present him.

Dungy’s time in playing in Pittsburgh as well as Tony Dungy Steelers coaching resume were all about overcoming the odds, an experience that served him well in Tampa and Indy. The Pittsburgh portion of Dungy’s resume is plenty impressive, and Steelers Nation must embrace it and celebrate it.

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Keith Gary , Mike Mayock, Anthony Washington, Tony Dungy and Chuck Noll; Photo Credit: Donald J. Stetzer, Post-Gazette

Tony Dungy’s Time as a Steelers Defensive Back

By the spring of 1977 the Pittsburgh Steelers had won two Super Bowls and just lost the 1976 AFC Championship game with the team that, almost to a man, the Super Steelers insist was the most talented of the decade.

  • Such a talented team wouldn’t leave much room for an undrafted rookie free agent, would it?

Fortunately Chuck Noll’s philosophy flowed in a different direction. As Dungy later told Jim O’Brien of the Pittsburgh Press:

…You think you’re just a little ol’ free agent and you’d think you don’t belong, but the coaches give you as much time as they give everybody else. They really try to help you make the team. So do the veterans.

Tony Dungy not only earned spot on the team, but played extensively as the Steeler’s 5th defensive back and third safety behind Mike Wagner and Donnie Shell. During 1977 and 1978, Dungy appeared in 30 games, making two starts and hauling down 9 interceptions. Highlight’s of Dungy’s Pittsburgh Steelers playing career include:

  • Leading the team with 6 interceptions in 1979
  • Recording AND throwing an interception as an emergency Quarterback in 1977
  • Forcing a Randy White fumble in Super Bowl XIII, setting up the Steelers final score

The Steelers traded Dungy to the 49ers following 1979, where Dungy played for a year before getting traded, and ultimately cut by the New York Giants.

While Dungy didn’t have a Hall of Fame playing career for the Steelers, he did earn a Super Bowl ring, and he now joins Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as the 10th player from the Steelers Super Bowl XIII Championship team to reach the Hall of Fame.

Not bad for an undrafted rookie free agent trying to break into the league with a team laden by Super Bowl veterans….

Noll Brings Dungy to Pittsburgh as Defensive Backs Assistant

As the exploits of Dungy’s brief playing days reveal, he might not have had the athletic talents, but he certainly possessed football smarts. New York Giants head coach Ray Perkins came to that conclusion based on Dungy’s brief time there, and gave Dungy his first interview in 1981.

tony dungy, donnie shell, hall of fame

Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

When Dungy called Steelers defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer for advice, Widenhofer arranged a meeting with Noll, and Dungy joined the team as a defensive backs coach.

  • By his own admission, however, Dungy spent 75% of his time during his first year working with the Steelers linebackers.

Nonetheless, Chuck Noll saw enough to send incumbent secondary coach Dick Walker packing while promoting Dungy to defensive backs coach. Tracing the impact of positions coaches was just as difficult in the early 80’s as it is today, but Dungy’s made close to an immediate impact, coaching his players to read the quarterback instead of focusing on receivers.

The fact that Dungy was able to make such a quick impact as a position coach is a little eailser tunderstand when you realize that the 27 year old Dungy had enough confidence to suggest technique changes to Mel Blount, who was well into his mid-30’s and already clear first ballot Hall of Famer.

When Woody Widenhofer left Pittsburgh to take the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaw’s head coaching position, Chuck Noll only had one place to look….

Tony Dungy, Youngest, 1st Black Coordinator

At age 29, Chuck Noll at once made Tony Dungy the youngest coordinator in the NFL and also the first African American coordinator. While Noll admitted he’d talked to several candidates “…but not with a really open mind.”

Earning such a prestigious promotion at age 29 might seem like an uncanny a stroke of good luck, but Tony Dungy got nothing handed to him. If anything, fate worked against him:

  • News of Blount and Bradshaw’s retirements dominated the news conference announcing Dungy’s hire.

Worse yet, Jack Lambert’s career ended 3 starts into this Tony Dungy’s tenure as Steelers defensive coordinator. Undaunted, Dungy took the reins of a Steelers defense that was literally shedding Hall of Famers and defied the odds. By end of the Steelers 1984 season, the Steelers defense had the NFL’s number 5 defense (in total yards) two notches below 1983’s edition and Steelers defenders ranked 2nd in interceptions, a rank above the previous year.

In the 1984 Steelers playoff upset win over the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, the Steelers defense dominated John Elway, sacking him 4 times and brutalizing him so badly he could barely stay in the game. Years later, a cousin of mine recounted how Elway was forced to take snaps with one hand – press accounts do not confirm that, but Elway injured his groin, bruised a kneed and twisted an ankle.

Asked about the 1984 Steelers defense following the game, Elway conceeded, “They dictated. They more or less did what they wanted.”

Tony Dungy put an exclamation point on Elway’s concession with the game tied at 3:45 left to play, with the Broncos attempting to rally on 2nd and 5 from their 20 yard line. The Steelers defense showed zone coverage, Elway looked at safety Eric Williams and assumed he had a one-on-one with Ray Alexander.

  • Except that Williams was playing man coverage, intercepted Elway’s pass and returned it to the Steelers 2.

It was Elway’s second interception of the day, and his last as it set up Frank Pollard’s go-ahead touchdown.

Pittsburgh would of course fall to the Miami Dolphins the next week in the AFC Championship, but the 1984 Steelers had shocked the world in won the AFC Championship, ruining the ’84 49er’s perfect season and upsetting Elway’s Broncos at Mile High. And Tony Dungy’s defense had led the way.

1985-1987 Tony Dungy’s Star on the Rise

Unfortunately, the 1984 Steelers success was largely a mirage. Chuck Noll had managed to coax above average performance with average talent. But as the last of the Super Steelers faded, the Steelers slipped into mediocrity during 1985 and 1986.

  • Yet Tony Dungy’s kept the Steelers defense competitive.

The 1985 Steelers finished 7-9, Chuck Noll’s first losing effort since 1971, but the Steelers defense finished 6th overall in yards allowed. The rest of the NFL took note of Tony Dungy’s Steelers coaching career.

tony dungy, steeles, defensive coordinator, african american, chuck noll

In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s Youngest Defensive coordinator

In the winter of 1986, Dungy found himself a head coaching candidate, as the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him for the job that ultimately went to Buddy Ryan. Dungy didn’t get the job, but by that point he was widely expected to become the NFL’s first African American head coach.

The 1986 Steelers slipped even further, dropping to 6-10,and the Steelers defense slipped to 18th in yards allowed.

The 1987 NFL draft saw Chuck Noll reload on defense, picking future stars like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, and Hardy Nickerson (in addition to one-year wonder Delton Hall.) Armed with the infusion of talent, Tony Dungy oversaw a defensive rebound, as the Steelers defense improved to 13th overall, was 3rd in interceptions, and returned 7 interceptions for touchdowns, leading the league.

  • Indeed, the Steelers defense carried Pittsburgh to a 8-7 record (6-6 in non-strike games), and kept them competitive in games they had no right to contest.

Some fans insisted that the Steelers were “A quarterback away from the Super Bowl.” In 20/20 hindsight, such observations were clearly wishful thinking, but the Steelers defense appeared to be on the rise. After the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bruce Kredan quipped that the Steelers had applied the finishing touches to Curtain II by drafting Aaron Jones, he wasn’t being entirely sarcastic.

Steelers Dreadful 1988 Campaign and Dungy’s Demise in Pittsburgh

The 1987 Steelers finished one game out of the final Wild Card slot for the playoffs. Yet, the fact that they almost won that game on thanks to 4th quarter, 45 yard pick six by Cornell Gowdy, teased that the Steelers defense was once again knocking on dominance’s door.

  • Again, the hopes of Steelers Nation fell into disappointment.

The 1988 Steelers opened with a win over Tom Landry’s Cowboys, and closed with a win over Don Shula’s Dolphins, but struggled mightily in between only winning three other contests. While the Steelers special teams and offense had their liabilities, the fact is that the 1988 Steelers saw 4th quarter lead after 4th quarter lead evaporate.

  • Statistics confirmed the defense’s decline, which slipped to 28th in yardage, worst in the NFL

The decline of the Steelers defense in 1988 defies easy explanation. 1988 saw Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, and Hardy Nickerson blossom into full time starters. Alongside these upstarts were players like Bryan Hinkle, David Little, Gerald Williams, Keith Willis and Dwayne Woodruff who were still playing in their primes.

  • Most likely, the 1988 Steelers defense regressed because they could not get on the same page.

Steelers linebackers coach Jed Hughes had designs on converting Aaron Jones into an outside linebacker. Tony Dungy disagreed, and wanted Jones to remain at defensive end. Jed Hughes went over Dungy’s head, and Jones spent part of the season at outside linebacker.

  • The damage this move did to Dungy’s standing with the Steelers, and the rest of the NFL should not be underestimated.

Ed Bouchette detailed it in a Dawn of a New Steel Age. In his book, Double Yoi, Myron Cope also delved into the incident, sharing that reporters silently rooted for Dungy in his struggle with Hughes, but ultimately arguing:

…I could not help but think that word travels on the football grapevine – Tony had let the linebackers coach steal Noll’s ear. Was he head coaching material or a wimp? In time, he answered the question, but the grapevine may have delayed his rise to the top for years.

The is plot actually thicker here, involving other revered Steelers legends here, which Ivan Cole documents on Going Deep with the Steelers, based on conversations with Bill Nunn.

  • Regardless, Dan Rooney didn’t like what he saw, and demanded that Chuck Noll fire several assistants.

Noll resisted, contemplated resigning until relenting. Jed Hughes name was on the hit list, Tony Dungy’s was not. But, the Steelers did ask Dungy to take a demotion. Dungy declined and resigned, ending his time in Pittsburgh.

Tony Dungy’s Arch in Pittsburgh Comes Full Circle (Sort of)

Tony Dungy had been the hot coaching prodigy in the mid and late 1980’s, often expected to be the NFL’s first black coach and/or the man to succeed Chuck Noll. Alas, Tony Dungy didn’t fufill either role, at least directly.

mike tomlin, tony dungy, steelers vs. colts 2008, steelers, colts, heinz field

Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy prior to the 2008 Steelers-Colts matchup; Photo Credit; ESPN, used on High Court Press

In a wired twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Tony Dungy with Rod Rust, the recently deposed head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Tony Dungy for his part would head to Kansas City to serve as Marty Schottenhimer’s defensive backs coach, whose secondary contributed the success of Kansas City’s defense, brining Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher to the attention of the Rooneys.

Dungy parlayed his success in Kansas City into a defensive coordinator job in Minnestoa, which he used to get his first head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Tampa, Tony Dungy hired and mentored promising young coach by the name of Mike Tomlin, giving him his first job in the NFL.

Tony Dungy’s roots not only Black and Gold, but his influence has lived on in Pittsburgh, long after his departure.

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Honoring Steelers Linebacker David Little – An Underapperciated Part of Pittsburgh’s Linebacker Legacy

When David Little began his NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1981, he arrived on the scene one year after his older brother, Larry Little, a future Hall of Fame guard who played 14 years for both the Chargers and Dolphins, ended his.

  • Talk about a lot to live up to for the younger Little, a middle linebacker and Pittsburgh’s seventh round pick out of Florida.

Speaking of future Hall of Famers, the Steelers still employed nine of them during Little’s rookie season. One of those future enshrines was Jack Lambert, Pittsburgh’s fierce, cranky and toothless middle linebacker. In only his eighth year in the NFL and still in his late-20s, the perennial Pro Bowler figured to rule the turf of old Three Rivers Stadium for many more years to come.

  • Didn’t seem like there’d be much of a future as a starter for Little, especially considering his rather middle-of-the-road draft-status.

Even after the Steelers switched to a 3-4 alignment in 1982 (three down linemen, two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers), it didn’t create a starting spot for Little. Instead, veteran Loren Toews started every game at left inside linebacker in ’82 and again in 1983, while the consistent and reliable Lambert manned the right inside spot.

Things forever changed for Little in 1984, after the legendary Lambert suffered a turf toe injury and only started three games.

"David

David Little helps Mel Blount bring down Marcus Allen

In Lambert’s place and along side Super Bowl veteran Robin Cole, Little started 13 games in ’84 and finished fourth on the team in tackles with 86, according to a UPI story published about Little in January of ’85, just prior to Pittsburgh’s match-up against the Dolphins for the right to go to Super Bowl XXIX.

“When you play Lambert’s position, your job is to make big plays,” Little told sports writer Dave Raffo, some 31 years ago.

In-fact, the Steelers defense made many big plays with Little starting in-place of Lambert, finishing fifth in both total yards and takeaways in ’84, as Pittsburgh advanced all the way to the AFC Championship Game.

As the story pointed out, Lambert was activated prior to the game against the Dolphins, but head coach Chuck Noll perhaps left no doubt as to who would start: “He’s a special player,” Noll said of Lambert. “But David Little has done an outstanding job in his place.”

Little started the conference title game in Miami, which turned out to be a 45-28 loss, and would continue to start for the remainder of his career, after Jack Lambert retired following the ’84 campaign.

  • Over the next eight seasons, Little was a model of consistency, starting an additional 112 games.

The NFL really didn’t keep track of tackles during Little’s playing days, but according to an article from The Pittsburgh Press published in 1990, Little, who made his first Pro Bowl that season, was the same tackling machine as Lambert, as he led the team in that category five of the previous six seasons–including four in a row up to that point.

  • It may have taken awhile for Little to earn his first Pro Bowl honor, but they say the ultimate respect a player receives is from his teammates.

Future Hall of Famer, and Little’s 1988 co-Steelers MVP, Rod Woodson, positively beamed when asked about Little finally making the Pro Bowl:

He’s been playing here for 10 years and playing well for 10 years,” He’s finally getting recognized, and everybody’s  really happy for David. I mean really, really happy.

Little played two more years and lasted through Bill Cowher‘s first season as head coach. However, despite the free agent departure of Hardy Nickerson, Cowher released Little during training camp in 1993 in-large part because of the development of second-year players Jerry Olsavsky and  Levon Kirkland.

Levon Kirkland, who much like Little, would go on to be a mainstay at the inside linebacker spot for many years. Because of his size (275 pounds) and almost unreal athleticism, Kirkland became a star at inside linebacker and made two Pro Bowls during his time with the Steelers.

  • As for Little, he never played again and retired into relative obscurity after 12 NFL seasons.

Sadly, on March 17, 2005, Little died in a weightlifting accident at his home in Florida. He was 46.

David Little may not have been as famous as his older brother or the Hall of Fame legend he replaced at inside linebacker for the Steelers. In-fact, he probably didn’t even quite enjoy the notoriety of his successor Levon Kirkland.

But David Little upheld the standard of excellence that is the Steelers linebacker legacy and had the respect of his teammates and a career to be proud of.

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