Published Jan. 9, 2020

For much of the 1950s and 1960s, the Pittsburgh Steelers were hardly synonymous with winning. There was no Steel Curtain that guarded against losing; instead, more of a chiffon sheer.

The Steelers were losers, plain and simple—a break on other NFL teams’ schedules. Not that any game involving the Steelers was easy on the body. They may have been doormats in the standings but not on the gridiron. The Steelers gained a reputation for being physically punishing—they just weren’t able to translate that toughness into winning football.

Until a former offensive lineman who learned his football from Paul Brown, became the coach in Pittsburgh in 1969.

Chuck Noll was one of Brown’s “messenger guards” in the 1950s—so named because of their task of running plays into the huddle from the sidelines. This was long before fancy-shmancy wireless communication—though Brown did dabble in that as well in the ’50s, by placing a radio transmitter inside the helmet of QB George Ratterman, with limited success.

Noll came to Pittsburgh and no one knew who he was. Just another longtime assistant coach who was certain to fail with the Steelers, because isn’t that what every head coach did in Pittsburgh?

After a 1-13 debut in 1969, Noll began drafting like a savant. One Hall of Fame caliber player after the other was grabbed off the board by Noll in the 1970s. He was surely using a crystal ball not available to any other team in the league.

But talent alone can’t seal the deal. You need great coaching to bring it out, to its maximum.

George Perles passed away the other day. The former Michigan State coach had been in failing health and succumbed at age 85. It was a steely life. Pun intended.

Noll interviewed dozens of candidates for the job of defensive line coach prior to the 1972 season. Perhaps he was overthinking it. Perhaps he was looking for perfection when none could be found.

But Noll had the makings of a dynamic d-line in 1972—with Mean Joe Greene, Dwight White and L.C. Greenwood all poised to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Yet as good as they were, they needed the right coaching.

Perles got the job, a year removed from a 12-year run as Duffy Daugherty’s d-line coach at MSU. Noll found perfection, after all.

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In 1974, Perles responded to DT Greene’s frustration over not making enough plays to satisfy him, by positioning no. 75 at an angle on the line of scrimmage—not directly over the guard’s helmet as in traditional defenses. Greene was positioned in the gap between guard and center, and on that angle that right away caused some confusion.

Perles dubbed it the “Stunt 4-3,” and it unleashed not only Greene—who was able to blow through the gap at the snap of the ball because of his quickness—but also linebacker Jack Ham, who was undersized but thanks to the Stunt 4-3, was free to make tackles left and right because the guards were futilely trying to mitigate Greene’s destruction.

Greene and Ham both went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, largely on the back of George Perles’ defense.

Perles was promoted to defensive coordinator for Noll in 1978, and to assistant head coach in 1979. He was no less a part of the Steelers’ dynasty (four Super Bowl wins) than the players on the field.

If any man was made for the blue collar toughness of a town like Pittsburgh, it was Perles, whose own upbringing in Detroit fit the Steel City like a glove. If Perles was going to be a successful assistant coach in the NFL, it was practically fated that it would happen in Pittsburgh, the home of Lions’ Hall of Fame LB Joe Schmidt.

The critics of the Stunt 4-3 said that it couldn’t possibly work as well if you didn’t have a monster like Joe Greene on the line. Perles scoffed.

“Some people will tell you that you can’t play the Stunt 4-3 without a Joe Greene,” Perles said years ago while he was at MSU. “We seldom have those type of people, but the defense still works.”

Perles made sure that fellow coaches knew that it would work without a generational player like Joe Greene, when he wrote a chapter about the Stunt 4-3 for a coaches handbook.

The key to the Stunt 4-3 is exactly what you think it is: stunts. Offenses found ways to negate the advantages a tilted nose tackle gave defenses. They altered the splits between the center and the guard or ran away from the nose tackle. One key response was a so-called Tom game, moving the defensive tackles to counter the blocking scheme. In-all, Perles’ chapter lists 14 different stunts, each designed to do one thing: create penetration and get in the backfield.

Current Steelers President Art Rooney II issued this statement after the passing of Perles. “George had a major role coaching our famed Steel Curtain defense when he helped us win four Super Bowls in the 1970s under Chuck Noll. George designed the Stunt 4-3 defense which helped Joe Greene and the Steel Curtain become one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history.” Indeed.

A key to good coaching is listening as much as teaching. The Stunt 4-3, while honed by Perles, was born from listening to an idea from Greene, who suggested the angled approach in the gap.

“For about 2 ½ seasons, no one could run inside us because we had everything locked down,” Greene recalled in 2019 about the Steelers defenses of 1974-76 particularly. “If George said my idea was bad, we may not have ever seen the Stunt 4-3.”

Make no mistake. George Perles was, and always will be in death, a Detroit kid. A Michigan State guy. His success in Pittsburgh was fueled by those Motor City roots; the two weren’t mutually exclusive. 

Perles was as green and white as they come. But there was a whole lot of black and gold in him too.