The NFLs Greatest Defenses & Coodinators Part 2 – Steel Curtain & Purple People Eaters

In Part 2 of Jon Somerset’s (@Orangeman3142) greatest defenses article, he covers the Steel Curtain and the Purple People Eaters.

In part 1 of this ridiculously long series, I’m planning we discussed the overall winners in my twitter poll of the NFLs greatest defenses of all time, the 85′ Bears and 2000 Ravens. We touched on Buddy Ryan and his 4-6 scheme and Marvin Lewis and the incredible staff he assembled on the 2000 Ravens team.

In todays installment we’ll touch on the 3rd and 4th place winners on the poll, the Steel Curtain coached by Bud Carson and the Purple People Eaters coached by Bud Grant (Definitely worth noting that Buddy Ryan was the defensive line coach of the Purple People Eaters). Let’s dive in.

The Steel Curtain

Bud Carson began his NFL career as a defensive backs coach for the Steelers in 1972 but was quickly promoted to defensive coordinator in 1973. He oversaw the Steel Curtain from 1973-1976 and was credited with assembling that group of defenders and won two Super Bowls with them. He was hired as defensive coordinator of the LA Rams in 1977 and within two years had their defense playing well enough to earn them a trip to Super Bowl XIV. He eventually got a head coaching job with the Cleveland Browns but will best be remembered as the creator of the Steel Curtain.

The Steel Curtain refers to the Pittsburgh Steelers defenses from the 1970s responsible for winning four Super Bowls in six years. The backbone of these defenses were the defensive line of “Mean” Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White. The nickname “Steel Curtain” was a play on the phrase “Iron Curtain” made popular by Winston Churchill in regards to the Soviet Union and its veil of secrecy and military might.

In 1971 Pittsburgh radio station WTAE held a contest to nickname the Steelers dominant defense and “The Steel Curtain” was suggested by Gregory Kronz, a 9th grader from a suburban high school in the area. Only 17 nicknames were suggested and this one was by far the best so it stuck and the Steelers defenses of the 70s, especially the ones mainly responsible for their four Super Bowls (let’s be real here, Terry Bradshaw wasn’t all that great) were from then on known as the Steel Curtain.

The first of four Super Bowl wins secured by this Steel Curtain was Super Bowl IX (1974 season). That year the Steel Curtain allowed 189 points in 14 games for an average of 13.5 points per game. They allowed 3,074 yards in 14 games for an average of 219 yards per game. While both those totals are less impressive than the 85′ Bears and 2000 Ravens numbers they are still ridiculous. The 1974 Steelers led the league with 47 takeaways at an average of 3.3 takeaways per game in the regular season. They would go on to beat Fran Tarkington and the Vikings 16-6 in the super bowl. The Steel Curtain picked off Tarkington 3 times and forced 3 fumbles, recovering 2 for a total of 5 takeaways in the biggest game of the season. They were well on their way to greatness.

The very next year the Steelers would go on to repeat as champions and maintain their defensive greatness. The 1975 season was another gem for the Steel Curtain. They allowed only 162 points in 14 games that season, improving on their 1974 numbers by allowing 27 points less than the previous season for an average of 11.5 points per game. However in total yards allowed they regressed somewhat allowing 3,661 yards in 14 games for an average of 261 yards per game. They had 37 takeaways and regressed somewhat there too from their total of 47 the prior year. They averaged 2.6 takeaways per game during the 1975 season. They would go on to play the Cowboys in the super bowl that year and beat them 21-17 in a close game, the 3 turnovers they forced ended up being the key factor in the win.

The next Super Bowl for the Steel Curtain came in 1978 after a two year period where the Raiders and Cowboys had won the championship. The Steel Curtain returned to form that season finishing as the overall #1 defense. They allowed 195 points in 14 games for an average of 13.9 points per game. They allowed 4,168 yards for an average of 297 yards per game. To this point this was the worst Steelers defense statistically to win the Super Bowl.

They finished 2nd in the league with 48 takeaways with an average of 3.4 takeaways per game. It was a good thing that by this time Terry Bradshaw had matured into a gunslinger cause once again they faced the Cowboys in the title game and eeked out a win 35-31. The Steel Curtain forced 3 turnovers from the Cowboys and Roger Staubach and were able to do just enough to wrap up their 3rd championship in 5 years.

The last of the titles for the Steel Curtain came in 1979, securing four Super Bowls in six years and cementing their place in NFL history forever. As the years went by the Steel Curtain, while still being extremely talented, was having to rely on the offense more and more. This last title was certainly a case of that.

The defense finished the now 16 game season allowing 262 points at an average of 16.3 points per game, their worst statistical year and almost 5 points worse than their best defensive year as the Steel Curtain. In 1979 they also let up 4,270 yards in 16 games for an average of 266 yards per game improving on the prior years average but far from their best as the Steel Curtain. They would go on to face the LA Rams in the title game and were able to beat them 31-19 on the strength of Terry Bradshaws arm and the defenses 3 takeaways. It would be the last title for the Steelers until 2006.

The Purple People Eaters

The Steel Curtain was truly impressive with their ability to keep delivering defensive excellence over the course of six years and four Super Bowls. A close 4th place finish in my twitter poll behind the Steel Curtain was the “Purple People Eaters” of the Minnesota Vikings. While they never won a Super Bowl they did deliver many years of terror to the opposing teams quarterbacks. Let’s talk Vikings.

The Purple People Eaters were a group of defensive linemen on the Vikings from the late 60’s to late 70’s. That defensive line consisted of Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen. The nickname was in reference to the color of their uniforms and to the popular 1958 song of the same name.

Their motto was “Meet at the quarterback”. That defensive line earned a total of 21 pro bowl appearances and both Alan Page and Carl Eller were enshrined in the hall of fame. Later on Gary Larsen would be replaced by Doug Sutherland but this didn’t effect their dominance on the field at all. This defensive line was credited with much of the success the Vikings had during that time period.

Bud Grant was the head coach of the Vikings during the era of the People Eaters and Grant with the help of defensive line coach Buddy Ryan were responsible for the formation of the Purple People Eaters. Bud Grant won the 1969 NFL championship with the Vikings (lost the Super Bowl though) and led the Vikings to four Super Bowl appearances but no wins unfortunately. He is a hall of famer and undoubtedly the best coach the Vikings have ever had.

I’ve combed through a ton of data and websites to try and put together some stats for this defensive line but a lot wasn’t recorded back in the 60’s, so we’ll go with what I found. Alan Page, a defensive tackle for the Vikings and a member of the Purple People Eaters had one hell of a career. He went to nine Pro Bowls and made first team six times and 2nd team three times during his career. His 18 sacks in 1976 are truly impressive, especially for a defensive tackle, and he had another five seasons of double digit sacks in his career. He won MVP as a defensive player and was also a two time NFL defensive player of the year. He is a hall of famer and certainly one of the greatest defensive tackles of all time.

Carl Eller, defensive end for the Vikings and 2nd member of the Purple People Eaters, is a six time Pro Bowler and 1969 NFL champion. He has five first team and two second team All-Pro selections in his career and was the 1971 NFL defensive player of the year. He is also a hall of famer and unofficially logged 133 sacks in his 16 year career. He added 23 fumble recoveries and is the Vikings all time sack leader with 130.5. His best season of 1969 saw him put up 15 sacks and had seven seasons with double digit sacks. He was truly a terror to behold.

The third member of the Purple People Eaters was Jim Marshall, a defensive end for the Vikings. Marshall held the consecutive starts record with 270 at the time of his retirement. He is a 1969 NFL champion and two time Pro Bowler with three second team All-Pro selections. He still holds the NFL record for most recovered fumbles with 30. He has the second most sacks in Vikings history with 127 and has been a finalist for the hall of fame since 2004.

The last member of the Purple People Eaters was Gary Larsen whose stats while not nearly as impressive were equally important. While the other three members of the People Eaters rushed the quarterback it was Larsens job to hang back and cover the run. This meant he retired with only 38.5 sacks in his 11 seasons. He was a two time Pro Bowler and was just as important a piece for the Vikings dominant defense of that era as anyone else.

Unfortunately it was tough to find a lot of stats in regards to these older teams but things should get easier as we go along here. Up next is a breakdown of the 1986 Giants and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick then the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.

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