For 15 Days we will be counting down the Top 15 Greatest Steelers of the Bill Cowher Era. The list will have both offensive and defensive players, and in doing the list no kickers or punters were selected. Below is our number choice of the day building towards the number one Steeler of the Cowher Era.
Levon Kirkland LB 1992-2000
Steelers inside linebacker Levon Kirkland is at number 9 on our list of top 15 players of the Cowher era.
Levon was a beast in the middle of the Steelers linebacking core for a number of years, playing with the club from 1992 to 2000. His speed for a big man (some say he was at times about 300 pounds) was amazing. He was held in high regard around the league, and most Sunday afternoons he would stun opposing teams with not only his strength, but his agility.
Kirkland came to the Steelers in the 2nd round of the 1992 draft out of Clemson. The first season with the team he shined on a special teams unit that was Bill Cowher’s baby his first year as Steelers head coach. Kirkland always seemed to be around the ball carrier that year on special teams, and you can clearly see him in the Steelers highlight film from that 11-5 season making plays. The shift for him to start at linebacker came in the 1993 season, as he took the spot of David Little.
It didn’t take long for Kirkland to make an impact, as by midway though his first season as a starter, he was making plays and making life tough on opposing teams. He also shined as he returned a Greg Lloyd forced fumble for a touchdown 24 yards in an early season win over the San Diego Chargers at Three Rivers Stadium. Kirkland that season recorded one sack, but his play in the middle was something the Steelers could seem to now count on for years to come.
1994 was much of the same, as the Steelers defense rose to number one in the NFL, Kirkland was right there, making plays and stopping running backs. He recorded three sacks that season for the “Blitzburgh” defense, and picked off two passes. He also made some big plays in the playoffs, the biggest of which came in AFC Title loss to San Diego, where he and his teammates made three stops on the goal line of Chargers power back Natrone Means. Though the game ended in a loss, people around the league were starting to take notice of Levon.
It was much of the same in 1995, with Kirkland now established as one of the best inside linebackers in the game. He once again was a leader on defense and played a big part in the Steelers going from 3-4 at one point, to reeling off 8 of their last nine games to finish 11-5. He again made big plays in the two home playoff games, and was a big part why Pittsburgh was going to Super Bowl XXX. It was in that game where America realized just how good the linebacker was. As the Steelers held Emmit Smith and the big bad Cowboys running game to just 56 yards, it was Kirkland that seemed to be in Smith’s back pocket on almost every play. He also had a sack of Troy Akiman in that game that gave the Steelers a shot at victory the eventually slipped away.
While 1995 was good for Kirkland, his best season may have been the 96 year, in which he earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl and all-pro honors. Kirkland really rallied the defense that season, after Greg Lloyd was out for the year mid-way though the opener, it was Kirkland that inspired his teammates as the Steelers wrapped up the season at 10-6. Levon took over Lloyd’s role in pass coverage as the only linebacker in the Steelers nickel defense. He had four interceptions that season, a high amount for an inside linebacker, to go along with four sacks and 114 tackles.
Kirkland continued to play at a high level in 1997, leading the team with 126 tackles and five sacks. The Steelers went 11-5 and reached the AFC Title game, only to once again lose, this time to the Denver Broncos. Once again Kirkland made the Pro Bowl. It was his last time invited to play in the annual affair in Hawaii. The next three seasons, Kirkland played on a Steelers team that underachieved. They didn’t make the playoffs, and the exposure for Kirkland was simply not there. He did continue to play well, but not for a team that year in and year out was close to being or was in the big game.
The Steelers had a decision to make as the 2001 season came about them. With Kirkland sometimes around 300 pounds, and his play dropping off just a bit, the team bit the bullet and decided to cut him, mostly due to salary reasons. Levon went to Seattle that offseason, and did play well, gaining 100 tackles as the defensive stud on that squad. The following season he was off to Philly, where he wrapped up his career by leading a team that made the NFC Title game.
Kirkland will also be recalled for his talkative style on the field, and his ability to make plays with his speed and agility. Despite his size, he was always a likeable player on the field with his teammates, and in the locker room with fellow players and the media.
Tomorrow: Number #8
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