Steelers years had big impact for Hall of Fame-bound Greene
February 8, 2016 7:07 PM
Former Steeler Kevin Greene was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this past weekend.
Chad Brown, left, and Kevin Greene celebrate after sacking Houston Oilers quarterback Chris Chandler in 1995.
Bob Donaldson / Post-Gazette
Kevin Henry and Kevin Greene celebrate after Greene sacked Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly during a 1994 game.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As the Rams return to Los Angeles this year, there should be two fruit baskets awaiting them, delivered by those who helped rebuild the Steelers into Super Bowl worthiness.
One would serve as a thank you to the new — now old — St. Louis Rams, one season removed from Los Angeles, for sending them Jerome Bettis in 1996, a trade that would help make the Steelers contenders for years and result in their fifth Lombardi Trophy.
The other gift would be a nod to the Rams for changing their defense. That prompted Kevin Greene to leave them and land with the Steelers as their first big signing of the new free-agent era in 1993. Over the next three seasons, the Steelers would play in two AFC championships and return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 16 years.
With Greene’s election Saturday, both former Rams are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and they can thank the Steelers for reviving their careers.
Bettis, elected one year ago, was the victim of a new Rams head coach who wanted to change their offense away from the big-back attack that had featured the Bus.
Greene also got lost in a new Rams shuffle. Although he had 47 sacks in his previous three seasons there, new defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher changed the defense in 1991 and put Greene at defensive end. He did not thrive, with just three sacks in 16 starts. After one more season in Los Angeles, Greene became a free agent and came to Pittsburgh for a visit.
There, Dom Capers and Bill Cowher took him to lunch, and Greene, the linebacker, was hungry to join their rebuilding defense that featured the 3-4 zone blitz, right up his pass-rush alley.
“I can remember when he came in on his visit, it struck me how passionate he was about the game,” said Capers, then the Steelers defensive coordinator. “We went to lunch, and he was talking about being locked, loaded and ready to go.”
Cowher and his defensive staff were looking for someone to replace outside linebacker Jerroll Williams, who had just signed with San Diego as a free agent. Williams, who had 13½ sacks in his previous two seasons with the Steelers, became a free-agent flop after he left.
Greene quickly signed with the Steelers, who put him at left outside linebacker. Greg Lloyd was their right outside linebacker. They helped form the Blitzburgh defense that carried the Steelers to the 1994 AFC championship they should have won and Super Bowl XXX they could have won.
Greene spent just three seasons playing for the Steelers, 20 percent of his 15-year NFL career, but both he and they profited immensely.
“I watched him play in Los Angeles,” said Capers, now the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator who coached in New Orleans for six years when the Saints played the Rams twice annually in their division. “I was familiar with his skills and how hard he played. What I didn’t know, when he came in, was his work ethic, all the tape he studied and his impact on others. Kevin made Greg Lloyd better on the other side.”
Greene wasn’t the final piece to that Blitzburgh defense, but became a big part of a phenomenal unit.
“Everybody on that defense had such a strong personality,” Greene said. “Greg Loyd — it was great hunting, feeding off Greg. Inside with Levon Kirkland and Chad Brown and Jerry Olsavsky. Dadgum, my corner was Rod Woodson! We had great safeties in Carnell Lake and Darren Perry.
“We knew all we had to do was funnel the ball to Carnell when we had eight guys in the box. We all knew that ball was going to die once it got to Carnell, and it wasn’t going any farther. I blew stuff up, took on blocks and funnelled the ball to him.
“Just a great defense. Joel Steed inside, Gerald Williams. A lot of fun. Just a great defense to be part of. A lot of fun, lot of fun.”
Before Greene arrived, the Steelers lost their first playoff game under Cowher at home after the 1992 season to Buffalo, which would go on to yet another Super Bowl. With Greene, the Steelers were 3-0 against the Bills over the next three seasons, holding them to 10 total points in two regular-season games, then trouncing them in the 1995 playoffs on the way to the Super Bowl.
“I remember Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed, we would stomp mud and hold on their tails and we loved doing it,” Greene recalled. “And the fans loved it. That was a time when the Bills were going to all those Super Bowls.
“The battles with Cleveland were great battles. Earnest Byner, Leroy Hoard — great, hard-nosed physical runners, and us knocking those around. I loved playing against those guys.”
Greene led the NFL in sacks in 1994 with 14.
Capers was such a big fan that, when he left the Steelers before the 1995 season to become head coach of the expansion Carolina Panthers, he signed Greene as a free agent for his first season in 1996. Greene led the NFL in sacks again that year with 14½.
“I just knew what he meant to our defenses in in ’93 and ’94 in Pittsburgh,” Capers said. “His passion spread throughout the other guys in the locker room.”
Unlike baseball, the Pro Football Hall of Fame does not have a player designate the team he will be identified with when he is inducted. If it did, the 20 percent of his career that Greene spent in Pittsburgh would get strong consideration.
“It was just great to be a part of it,” Greene said. “It was just awesome to be a Steeler.”
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.
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