The golden age of Steelers linebackers occurred in the 1970s when Andy Russell and Hall of Famers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert roamed in the team's great defenses.
But since switching to the 3-4 defensive scheme in 1982, only one other group of linebackers can rival the current crew as the best and/or most dominant to play together.
James Harrison made his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl, named Monday to replace Baltimore's Terrell Suggs who pulled out with an injury. That ties him with Greg Lloyd, and they are behind Lambert (nine Pro Bowls), Ham (eight) and Russell (seven) in team history at the position.
Harrison, the NFL defensive player of the year in 2008, has teamed with fellow outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley to become the best duo at sacking the quarterback in the league. Woodley was on his way to his second Pro Bowl and candidacy for the defensive player honor with nine sacks through the first eight games. Injuries, though, caused him to miss virtually seven of the final eight games of the regular season.
Woodley and Harrison, who missed five games himself with a broken eye bone and a one-game suspension, each had nine sacks in 2011. Harrison is sixth in Steelers history with 58 sacks, just two from moving into third place. Woodley shot to No. 8 with 48 sacks in just five seasons in the league.
They are among the best and most handsomely paid players on the team. Add in what James Farrior has meant to them over the past decade and the combination of Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons, and that's a hard group to top. The only ones to rival it would have been the Blitzburgh linebackers of Lloyd, Levon Kirkland, Chad Brown and Kevin Greene in the 1990s.
There is no stronger group on the Steelers than the linebackers. But some change could occur there in 2012. Woodley, who signed a new contract in the summer, and Harrison will be back, as will Timmons. He has not yet made the Pro Bowl many of his teammates predicted for him but has become a versatile and valuable performer who never leaves the field. He, too, signed a new contract in the summer.
The question comes at the other inside linebacker spot. What is to become of Farrior and Foote? The two alternated at times this past season and now it would seem the Steelers must decide which one they want back. They have some hard salary cap decisions to make and Farrior ($2,825,000) and Foote ($3 million) make too much to share the position again. One, it would seem, has to go -- unless each might agree to steep pay cuts.
That's possible, and Farrior like Baltimore's Ray Lewis -- who is two months younger -- still wants to play.
Whether one returns or both, the Steelers will be strong again at linebacker, inside and out. Jason Worilds, in his second season, was OK in the second half of the season while filling in for Woodley and he again will be No. 3 at outside linebacker. They have not had a long look yet at Stevenson Sylvester inside but he could get that chance next season, depending on what happens to Farrior and Foote. There also is Chris Carter, their fifth-round pick last year whose rookie season was cut short by injuries.
The Steelers have had outstanding linebackers for much of their history, even before (Russell, Myron Pottios) their Super Bowl success began in the 1970s. For the past 20 years they rarely have had a poor one in their starting four and during that time 10 different linebackers made a total of 25 Pro Bowls.
A transition may take place next season. Although it would involve only one position it would affect two players who have had big roles, Farrior and Foote.
Foote spoke philosophically late in the season about such transitions.
"We have guys in here who can play. The numbers don't lie. Backups come in and they play and do a good job. I think the main thing is the mindset, it starts with the head man. If you're in this locker room, we expect you to play. They coach you like that."