Home Steelers 2023 Season Top 50 Steelers of the 21st Century (TOP 10)

Top 50 Steelers of the 21st Century (TOP 10)

by Ian

It’s the offseason and there’s not much happening in the NFL world. In fact, as we like to say around these parts, the only news is bad news. That can take the form of player injuries, arrests, suspensions, etc. But since it’s the offseason and there isn’t much going on, we figured we’d have some fun. There have been some lists floating around on Twitter of “Who was this team’s best non-QB player this century?” While the SCB crew was debating that question, we wound up with a list of our Top 50 Steelers of the century.

The one prerequisite to this list is that the player had to play at least three seasons with the Steelers since the year 2000. So that means that recent additions like Najee Harris and Kenny Pickett are not eligible, along with one-year wonders like Flozell Adams. Since the Steelers Hall of Honor also uses the three-year timeframe as a guide for elections, we also thought it was a good parameter. You could also look at this list as our power rankings of players worthiness to be in the Hall of Honor.

So far we have gone through some Honorable Mentions and #50-41, #40-31, #30 to #21, and #20 to #11. Today we wrap up this fun summer exercise by counting down the Top 10 Steelers of the 21st Century.

10. James Farrior

Potsie was the centerpiece of the Steelers dominant defensive unit throughout the mid-2000s. After starting his career with the Jets, he signed with the Steelers in free agency in 2002. He had an immediate impact at inside linebacker. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau described Farrior as an extension of himself and likened it to “having a second coach out on the field.” Farrior played 10 seasons with the Steelers, missing just 6 games. He was selected to the Pro Bowl twice, was a second-team All Pro in 2008 and was first team All-Pro in 2004. Additionally, Farrior came in second in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2004, losing out to Ed Reed. That season he had 4 of his 8 career interceptions (returning one for a TD), forced 3 fumbles, and had 3 sacks. In total Farrior played 154 regular season games for Pittsburgh, recorded over 1000 tackles, had 30 sacks, 82 TFLs, 8 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles, and 10 fumble recoveries. Farrior also appeared in 16 playoff games where he posted 97 tackles, 2 interceptions, 4 sacks, and 6 TFLs. Farrior’s best career playoff game came in the 2005 Divisional Round in Indianapolis where he had 2.5 sacks of Peyton Manning, 10 total tackles with 2 TFLs. As the captain of the defense, he led the unit that finished in the top 3 in scoring defense and total yardage 6 times.

9. Antonio Brown

The Steelers selected Brown in the 6th round of the 2010 draft in which they also took Emmanuel Sanders in the 3rd round. The Steelers were looking to restock their wide receiver room after trading away Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes and losing Nate Washington in free agency. The first time Brown touched a ball in an NFL game, he returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Brown didn’t see much playing time on offense during his rookie year but made a splash in the playoffs where he caught a ball against his helmet on 3rd and 19 for a 58-yard gain to set up the Steelers for the game-winning touchdown to beat the Ravens. Brown posted his first 1000-yard season the following year and stepped into a starting role in his third season. He was rewarded with a long-term contract and parlayed that into the best stretch a Steelers receiver has ever produced. He repeatedly broke team single-season records for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns over the next six seasons. Brown led the league in yards twice and receptions twice. He put up 1698 yards in 2014 and 1834 yards in 2015. Brown was first-team All Pro 4 times and second team All-Pro once. He finished in the Top 3 in Offensive Player of the Year voting three times and made 7 Pro Bowls. AB was the best receiviner in the league for a five-year stretch, but unfortunately the run ended terribly. He walked out on the team before the season finale in 2018 then threw a petulant fit in the offseason which resulted in the Steelers trading him away. Brown burned every bridge on his way out of town and continued to trash former teammates and the organization after he left. Brown’s on-field play puts him among the best players in the league over the last decade, but his departure from Pittsburgh and subsequent trashing of the organization tarnishes his legacy and diminishes his level of “greatness.”

8. Jerome Bettis

The Bus was traded to the Steelers during the 1996 NFL Draft. He made the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons and broke the 1000-yard mark in 6 straight years. While only 6 of his 10 seasons as a Steeler fell during this century, he was a locker room leader who made a dramatic impact on the team. The last four seasons Bettis transitioned into more of a short-yardage back but was still capable of shouldering the load when needed. He had incredibly quick feet and excellent vision, enabling him to maneuver his massive frame into gaps and bowl over defenders when needed (see: Urlacher, Brian).  Jerome made two Pro Bowls during this century, in 2001 and 2004. He was the Walter Payton Man of the Year winner in 2002. Bettis was leading the league in rushing in 2001 before suffering a season-ending injury. He started the 2004 season with the legendary game where he rushed 5 times for 1 yard and 3 touchdowns. He was the heart and soul of the offense and after losing the AFC Championship Game in 2004 returned for one final year to make a run at the Super Bowl. The Steelers delivered in 2005 and Jerome was able to go out on top, winning a ring in his home town of Detroit in one of the most emotional victories in Steelers history. Bettis was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.

7. James Harrison

James Harrison is one of the greatest success stories in the NFL. As an undrafted free agent, he bounced around to multiple teams (including a few stints in Pittsburgh) before finally landing a permanent roster spot in 2004. He was a backup to Joey Porter on the 2005 Super Bowl-winning squad. When Porter left after the 2006 season, Harrison stepped into the starting role and exploded. His coming out party was a Monday Night game against the Ravens where he had 9 tackles, 3.5 sacks, an interceptions, and 3 forced fumbles (including one on a punt return where he absolutely annihilated Ed Reed). He made the Pro Bowl in each of the next 5 seasons, including breaking the Steelers single-season sack record in 2008 when he was named Defensive Player of the Year. He was first-team All-Pro twice and second team All-Pro two more times. That 2008 season also saw him make one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. In the waning seconds of the first half, Harrison intercepted Kurt Warner at the goal line and returned it 101 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the half.  In addition to winning DPOY in 2008, he finished 3rd behind Troy Polamalu in 2010. Due to salary cap constraints with his contract, he spent a year in Cincinnati in 2013 but returned to Pittsburgh in 2014. Unfortunately, his Steelers career ended unceremoniously as he forced his way off the team during the 2017 season and was picked up by the Patriots where he would play in his fourth career Super Bowl. Harrison used his incredible strength and relentless motor to get after the quarterback. He perfected the dip and rip move under the arms of an offensive lineman. Harrison was also a strong defender against the run, both in setting the edge and crashing down the line. He posted over 100 tackles twice, an insane number for an outside linebacker. Harrison retired as the career leader in multiple Steelers defensive categories including sacks (80.5), QB hits (142), and TFLs (122). He was one forced fumble (33) behind Greg Lloyd. Harrison had a tumultuous relationship with the league’s disciplinary office as he became the poster child for hits to the head and was suspended multiple times for hitting opponents in the head with the crown of his helmet.

6. Cameron Heyward

Cam was drafted in the first round in 2011 to add youth and depth to an aging defensive line. His first few years he was stuck on the depth chart behind the likes of Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, and 2009 first round pick Ziggy Hood. Cam finally broke into the starting lineup in 2013 and has held down a spot on the defensive line for the last decade. He has been the quintessential Pittsburgh Steeler and is arguably the best defensive lineman the team has had since Mean Joe Greene. Heyward has done a ton of work in the community through his Heyward House foundation, in addition to excelling on the field. After returning from an injury that cut short his 2016 season, Cam made first-team All Pro in 3 of the next 5 seasons and has been a Pro Bowler in 6 straight years. He has flourished in the role as both a 3-4 DE and interior defensive tackle in nickel packages. Cam’s ability to rush the passer has resulted in him putting up double-digit sacks in 3 of the last 6 years, an elite threshold (especially for an interior lineman). His 12-sack season in 2017 was the first time a Steeler broke the double-digit sack mark since James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in 2010. Cam enters the 2023 season second on the Steelers all-time sack list with 78.5, just two behind James Harrison. He surpassed both Mean Joe Greene and LC Greenwood last year on the team’s sack list.

5. TJ Watt

Watt 2019

In just six seasons in Pittsburgh, Watt has already cemented himself as one of the best players in franchise history. Watt was the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year after tying the league record with 22.5 sacks in the season. That was his third season finishing in the top three of DPOY voting and he was first-team All-Pro in all three of those years. He has made the Pro Bowl in five of his six seasons and has amassed an incredible 77.5 sacks to date. He is just 3 sacks shy of James Harrison’s team record of 80.5 career sacks and will likely be the Steelers all-time sack leader when he eventually retires. He has a chance to be the first Steeler to surpass 100 career sacks as he has put up 13+ sacks four times. He has a relentless motor and an incredible combination of speed, power, and hands. He can fight his way through double teams and has great burst off the line to slice in and make tackles in the backfield. In addition to his sacks, he has 88 career TFLs and 162 QB hits. He has forced 23 fumbles (trailing only Greg Lloyd and James Harrison) and accounted for 6 interceptions. Watt’s only career touchdown came in the 2021 playoffs in Kansas City. Injuries limited him last season, but when healthy Watt is an absolute wrecking ball and an all-around defender who can make plays against the run and the pass.

4. Hines Ward

The quintessential Pittsburgh Steeler. Hines Ward was a tough, hard-nosed receiver who was an extremely reliable target throughout his career. Drafted in 1998, he carried the passing game through eras of dreadful quarterback play before Ben Roethlisberger was drafted. Prior to Hines, the Steelers single-season record for receptions was Yancey Thigpen’s 85 in 1995. Hines surpassed 90 catches four times, including his career-best 112 receptions in 2002. Hines made four straight Pro Bowls from 2001-2004, surpassing 1000 yards in each season. He was second-team All-Pro in three of those seasons. Hines played 14 seasons in Pittsburgh (12 this century), appearing in 217 regular season games (185 since 2000) and 18 playoff games. Hines led by example, not just as a receiver where he had a knack for finding holes in zone coverage and sitting down right at the first down sticks, but also as a blocker. He laid out devastating blocks on several opponents, including infamous blocks on Ed Reed and Keith Rivers. Hines’ aggressive blocking style led to the creation of the “Hines Ward Rule” against crack-back blocks. Hines was known for classically playing with a broad grin on his face, regardless of the game or situation. He was the heart and soul of the Steelers offense for nearly a decade and a half and finished his career with 1000 catches, one of just 12 players in NFL history to surpass that mark. He is the Steelers all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards (12,083), and receiving touchdowns (85).

3. Alan Faneca

When you talk about dominant offensive lineman over a decade, Alan Faneca’s name is near the top of the list. Faneca was selected in the first round of the 1998 Draft and started almost immediately but didn’t hit his full stride until after the turn of the century. From 2001 through 2007 (his final year in Pittsburgh), Faneca was first team All-Pro six times. The only year he wasn’t was the year that injuries decimated the offensive tackle position and Faneca had to shift from guard to tackle. In true fashion of a Steelers player that will do anything for the team, Faneca made the shift and was a second-team All-Pro that season. He made the Pro Bowl in all seven of those seasons and only missed one game. Faneca was the best pulling guard in the league and his massive block sprung Willie Parker’s 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL. Faneca left Pittsburgh due to contractual reasons after Mike Tomlin’s first year and spent time in New York and Arizona before retiring. He is the archetype for a Pittsburgh Steeler. Not just offensive lineman, but any position. A hard worker who was willing to do whatever it took to help the team (including switching positions) but also came up huge in big moments and was a key part in delivering a Championship. In his 10 years in Pittsburgh, Faneca played 158 regular season games and 11 playoff games. Faneca is in the Steelers Hall of Honor, was on the All-Decade Team, and is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is tied with Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, and Dermontti Dawson for the mist First Team All-Pro selections (6) in team history.

2. Troy Polamalu

The leader of the defense through the 2000s. Troy was a soft-spoken leader who let his performance do the talking. It is hard to put into words just what Troy Polamalu meant to the Pittsburgh Steelers. There were t-shirts (70% of the earth is covered by water and the other 30% is covered by Troy Polamalu) and songs (“Pa-la-ma-lu”) made about him. His play and personality inspired teammates and put terror into the hearts of opponents. His flowing locks were a trademark (he hadn’t cut his hair since marrying his wife) and a hallmark that a big play was on the way when you saw it flash across the field. Troy’s unique combination of athleticism (being able to make leaping and diving interceptions) and instincts (timing up snap counts to jump over the line and attack the quarterback under center) was unmatched. He also possessed the all-around ability to time up blitzes off the edge, attack the run, come downhill to deliver big hits in the passing game, and to cover ground on the back end and make interceptions. No one has ever played the safety position quite like Troy Polamalu. Over his 12-year career he played 158 regular season games, 15 playoff games, won two Super Bowls and played in a third. He was the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year in a season where he made crunch time plays that directly led to three victories. He was first-team All Pro four times, second-team two times and made eight Pro Bowls. Troy’s career included 32 interceptions (including 7 in both 2008 and 2010), 14 forced fumbles, 12 sacks, 56 tackles for loss, and 5 defensive TDs. He had 3 more interceptions in the playoffs, the biggest coming in the 2008 AFC Championship Game where he intercepted Joe Flacco in the waning moments with the Steelers leading by two and returned it to the house for an iconic touchdown. Troy was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021.

1. Ben Roethlisberger

Pittsburgh Steelers Offense Explosive

Ben Roethlisberger was the answer to prayers of many Steelers fans. Personally, as someone who grew up in the 1990s, every Christmas in my childhood I asked Santa to bring the Steelers a quarterback. One finally came in 2004 when the Steelers drafted Roethlisberger with the 11th overall pick. An injury to Tommy Maddox almost immediately thrust Ben into the starting role in Week 2. The legendary start to Ben’s career included rattling off 15 straight wins, including the infamous “21 and done” game on Halloween that ended the Patriots 21-game winning streak. Ben also staked his claim as a clutch time performer, putting together 5 game-winning drives. That season culminated with a loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, but the Steelers came back with renewed determination the following year and became the first #6 seed to win the Super Bowl when they captured the “one for the thumb” over Seattle. The offense would progressively open up for Ben in the ensuing years and he would win a second Super Bowl in 2008. After the Steelers built an early lead and Larry Fitzgerald almost single-handedly brought the Cardinals back, Ben executed another game-winning drive to win the Super Bowl. His throw in the corner of the end zone to Santonio Holmes is one of the best throws of all time. Injuries and off-field incidents did mark Ben’s early career but as he matured he settled down with a wife, children, and faith. The Steelers won the Conference Championship again in 2010 but fell to the Packers in the Super Bowl. Todd Haley’s hiring as offensive coordinator, coupled with Ben’s connection to Antonio Brown produced a plethora of opportunities. Ben led the league in passing yards in 2014 and 2018, topping 30 TDs in both seasons. After a devastating elbow injury cost him nearly all of the 2019 season, the old cowboy returned for 2020 and the Steelers started the year 11-0. In his final season, Ben posted a career high and league-leading 7 Game-Winning Drives. Ben’s biggest asset throughout his career was his body strength and footwork. It was almost impossible for defenders to arm-tackle him and his highlight reel is full of “Ben being Ben” plays where he gets out of a sack and makes a big throw down the field. Ben always had a big arm and was aggressive with the ball. In later years, when aging knees made him essentially a statue in the backfield, he still had the gunslinger mentality and the ability to produce in the clutch. Ben holds all of the Steelers career passing records with over 64,000 yards and 418 TDs. He made the Pro Bowl 6 times in his career and more importantly won two Super Bowl Rings and played in a third. His 53 career Game-Winning Drives ranks third behind Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. His 41 career 4th Quarter Comebacks are also third behind the aforementioned two contemporaries. Ben and his clutch performances were a main reason the Steelers did not have a losing season during his 18-year career. His 249 games are the most ever for a Pittsburgh Steeler. Only seven quarterbacks have started more Super Bowls than Ben and only five have won more than his two rings. Ben was an all-time winner and hard-nosed competitor who was tough as nails, playing through numerous injuries throughout his career. The Steelers were the first team to win Six Super Bowls in large part because of Ben Roethlisberger.

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