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The 1976 Steel Curtain Defense – The Greatest in NFL History

1976 Steelers Defense the Greatest of All-Time
Publish Date:05/01/2022
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

When people bring up the greatest defense in NFL history, you hear a lot of teams brought up, but what if I told you that there is no dispute about the greatest defense ever? And it is not the 1985 Chicago Bears!

The 1976 Steelers were so good that eight of the Steelers defenders were chosen for the Pro Bowl that year. Four are in the Hall of Fame: Mel Blount, Mean Joe Greene, Jack Ham, and Jack Lambert.  L.C. Greenwood should join them. Lambert was the NFL’s defensive player of the year in 1976, and what made the ’76 Steelers defense even more impressive was that the offense was racked by injuries. So, the defense had very little help.

George Perles and Bud Carson devised a stunting 4-3 defense that confused offenses all season long. That Steelers defense gave up just 28 points over their last 9 games and set an NFL record, which I believe will never be broken with 5 shutouts in a single season.

The Steelers started the season out at 1-4, and then to make matters worse, lost Hall of Fame QB Terry Bradshaw. The defense took over from there, leading the Steelers to nine straight wins and an AFC Central Championship.

In eight of the last nine games, the Steelers amazingly didn’t allow a single touchdown! They actually had three consecutive shutouts, which hasn’t been done since and will probably never be done again. In 1976, the Steelers defense ranked 1st overall, giving up 138 points, 22 interceptions, 24 fumble recoveries, 46 total turnovers for the season, and five shutouts. Their best game was against the San Diego Chargers; five turnovers, 134 total yards, and shut them out.

The game that I will remember the most was a battle for the AFC Central crown at the end of the season when they played the high-scoring Cincinnati Bengals at old Riverfront stadium. The Steelers did nothing on offense all day behind QB Mike Kruczek, but they somehow kept the Bengals’ potent offense to just 3 points, until late in the game, when in a driving snow storm, they forced Bengals running back Bobbie Clark to fumble deep in his own territory. The Steelers recovered and won the division on a short Franco Harris run, the final score was 7-3 and the Steelers were once again on to the playoffs.

How many teams lose a hall of fame quarterback and go on to win with almost no offense? That’s what made this the best ever and it’s a shame that injuries derailed the offense. We already know what happened when Bradshaw was healthy as the Steelers won four Super Bowls in six seasons. The Steelers went on to beat up the Colts in Baltimore 40-14 before meeting their demise in Oakland against another all-time great team the Oakland Raiders.

The ’76 Defense is often forgotten because of a 24-7 AFC Championship game loss in Oakland, but the team was decimated by injuries. The ’76 Steelers’ defense did things that no defense ever did and I think it’s safe to say will never do again.

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