Steelers Throwback Thursday: Levon Kirkland career retrospective
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The Pittsburgh Steelers have always had a tradition of finding, developing, and playing linebackers with big character and a ton of grit. With the way the NFL has changed over the decades, though, one of the fiercest linebackers the Steelers ever fielded was Levon Kirkland. We look back at his career and his impact – on the team and with fans – from 1992 to 2000.
Kirkland was one of the biggest interior linebackers the Steelers evaluated at the Combine ahead of the 1992 NFL Draft. He went on to become one of the largest interior linebackers they’d field at that position. At 6-feet-1, what made Kirkland stand out was that, despite his 275-300 pound weight, he had incredible agility and speed. He was comfortable playing against the run and moving sideline-to-sideline, giving Pittsburgh’s defense a real edge.
The genesis of Kirkland’s career
Kirkland, a former linebacker from Clemson, was evaluated by and spoke with the Steelers at the NFL Scouting Combine and it he has publicly admitted that it was a mixed bag experience for him. As a “kid from South Carolina,” Kirkland said he wasn’t concerned about his athletic abilities showing, but the process was not comfortable.
“Your whole football life you can’t wait to get to the combine and then you get (there) and you realized that, man, this kind of stinks… You are exposed. Shirt off. Turn to the right, turn to the left… I got there, but I couldn’t wait to leave.”
Kirkland visited the Steelers and walked through the tunnel at Three Rivers Stadium before draft day and expressed in interviews that Ernie Mills was one of the first players he met and got to know, but it was the idea of young head coach Bill Cowher taking the Steelers in a new direction that was a real draw.
The Steelers selected him in the second round of the 1992 NFL Draft and it took the big guy little time before he was making his mark on the squad. “On draft day, my brothers and I were sitting in front of the television. I remember the 38th pick, the Steelers had ten minutes to pick,” Kirkland recalled. He went into the bathroom and told himself, in the mirror, that the Steelers were going to pick him. Sure enough, they did.
In his second season, Kirkland replaced Pro Bowl linebacker David Little on the roster and started 13-of-16 games. In those games, the young linebacker had 75 assisted tackles, 16 solo tackles, 59 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, two interceptions and four pass defenses.
Making his presence known
By the 1995 NFL season, the league was on notice that Kirkland was one of the best inside linebackers in the league. The Steelers defense was comprised mainly of Brentson Buckner, Joel Steed, Ray Seals, Kevin Green, Chad Brown, Greg Lloyd, Willie Williams, Carnell Lake, Myron Bell, and Darren Perry as the starters. Those were a lot of big characters, but many of Kirkland’s former teammates have said that he was the biggest character of them all.
“In the locker room I was a character. I would do the practical jokes and tease people. On the field I was more serious.” – Levon Kirkland
The 11-5-0 Steelers would take the AFC Central Division that year on their way to Super Bowl XXX where they met the Dallas Cowboys. Kirkland made his presence known in the game, helping the Steelers defense hold the Cowboys to just 15 first downs while limiting running back Emmitt Smith and the Dallas run game to just 56 yards. Kirkland had ten tackles and a critical sack of Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman in the game although the Cowboys were able to win, 27-17, due to miscues by Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell.
Leader and All-Pro
The next two seasons, 1996 and 1997, saw a leadership change on defense and an uptick in Kirkland’s prowess at his position in Pittsburgh’s defense. Having lost outside linebacker Greg Lloyd at the beginning of the 1996 season to a knee injury, Kirkland became the vocalizer and leader on the field; he also took over Lloyd’s role in pass coverage as the Steelers’ lone linebacker in the nickel defense package.
Because of his size, opponents often attempted to put the ball in the air and allow their receivers to go head-to-head with Kirkland – not seen initially as nearly as quick as Lloyd was in closing on the ball. It was to their own detriment. Kirkland grabbed four interceptions in 1996 to go with four sacks and 114 tackles. His play earned him All-Pro status that season.
In 1997, Kirkland was the lone Steelers linebacker to grab an interception, and he earned two of them. That number ranked him tied for third on the team in picks behind Donnell Woolford, Perry (tied at first with 4 apiece), and Carnell Lake (3). Chad Scott and Chris Oldham, both defensive backs, also had two interceptions.
Following the 1996 and 1997 seasons, Kirkland made the Pro Bowl. In 1997, Kirkland set a career-high, team-leading 126 tackles and a career-high five sacks as the Steelers made it to the AFC Championship game where they lost to the Denver Broncos.
The end in Pittsburgh
Kirkland continued to play well over the next four seasons in Pittsburgh, but the offense struggled often during that time period. The result was a failure to make the playoffs and a slide in both divisional and conference play.
In 2001, the Steelers – like many teams across the NFL -struggled ahead of the season with salary cap issues. Like Aikman, Jerry Rice, and even John Randle, teams were forced to waive many of their star players. Kirkland was waived but went to the Seattle Seahawks and had a 100-plus tackle season. The next season, his final in the NFL, Kirkland played for the seventh-ranked defense in the league as a Philadelphia Eagle.
“There was a certain pride there. The [Steelers] organization was more like a family than a business. I have been to other teams and it wasn’t the same feel. I was so blessed and fortunate to play (in Pittsburgh) where you had such a tradition of great linebackers. You knew the guys who played here in the past and had a relationship with them. You have a relationship with the guys who are here now. The Rooney family is outstanding.” – Levon Kirkland in 2011
Kirkland’s name continues to enter conversations when Pittsburgh’s linebacker and defensive history comes up. No, he wasn’t a part of the famed Steel Curtain defense, but his time in Pittsburgh was one in which the defense often carried the squad to victories. Steelers fans of today are still aware of what Kirkland contributed to the team and his No. 99 jersey was worn by Brett Keisel (2002-09) and Henry Mondeaux (2019-present).