Steelers Fulfilled The Need For Defensive Speed This Offseason

Once unanimously regarded as the fastest player on the team, even veteran cornerback Ike Taylor was surprised by the collective team speed on display when he returned to Latrobe for the second set of OTAs for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The 12th-year veteran believes this team will be “super-duper fast” in 2014 with the combination of players added in the draft and free agency and young players replacing aging and slowing veterans.

He relayed a series of text messages sent to him by his good friend, fellow cornerback William Gay, while he was training in Florida.

“Hey man, I’m telling you it’s like a track meet on defense, from the defensive line all the way back to the secondary. These boys are running”, is the general idea behind those exchanges, said Taylor. “When you look at it on the field and you actually play with them, you can see that they are running”, was his response after finally getting a chance to see for himself on Tuesday.

The speed comes from all across the board; not just where you’d expect it. That was head coach Mike Tomlin’s message. “Guys like Ryan [Shazier] and Dri [Arhcer] are going to get the headlines, but if you look across the board, you’ll see that we have some young people who have that asset”, he said. “I think we’ve added speed at just about every position”.

As mentioned, there’s inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who can claim to be faster than even many of the defensive backs in the league. Then there’s Dri Archer, a slash-type player who has “unique speed”, in general manager Kevin Colbert’s words.

But as Bob Labriola points out, that speed comes from all over the place. The speed along the defensive line, with Steve McLendon at nose tackle and Cameron Heyward now a steady fixture at defensive end, is greater than it has been in some time—especially once Stephon Tuitt is ready to contribute.

Tomlin sees this as a great asset to counteract some of the nuances that are more prevalent in today’s game. “It helps in mis-direction runs, reverses, the screen game”, he said.

There are plenty of opportunities where sheer speed is a factor and an element in the game. When you’re approaching pass-rushers from a speed standpoint, it’s not only what they’re capable of doing in rushing the passer, but it’s also that transition from rush-to-chase. Underneath throws, the screen game, those rush-to-chase speed guys invariably make plays because of that character trait.

Labriola talks about a speed deficit that was often presented to the defense last season, during which they were faced with opposing offenses that could match or surpass their defensive speed. This was a concern for Tomlin during the offseason, who talked about the difficulty of combating a speed deficit through scheme.

You have to cover up for it schematically, and of course that puts a lot of pressure on the defensive play-caller, particularly situationally. When that’s the case, the play-caller has to be aware of personnel groups and where the offense’s speed people are located and then make sure he’s answering those challenges schematically when there’s a speed deficiency.

It’s no surprise then that we’ve seen the Steelers replace some of their most acceleration-compromised players—such as Larry Foote, Ryan Clark, and Brett Keisel—with players of pure speed for their position, most of whom project to be their direct heirs—Shazier, Mike Mitchell, and eventually Tuitt, respectively.

The Steelers hope this will help cut down on the “double explosive plays”, to which they were uncharacteristically susceptible in 2013. An explosive play is a play that goes for 20 or more yards. The Steelers allowed 17 plays of at least 40 years a year ago, five of which culminated in the end zone.

Many of these incidents were the product of that aforementioned deficit, a gap that the Steelers hope they have now closed.

“Speed”, in Tomlin’s words, “is the type of thing on offense that can generate yards in chunks and ring up the scoreboard with very little execution”. With the added chess pieces this year, speed no longer appears to be an advantage that opposing offenses will experience often.

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Kurt Williams

    Wow 17 plays > 40 yards is not Steelers type of ball and they gave up 370 points, waaay too much.

  • cencalsteeler

    While the rest of the NFL was following the trend of drafting tall receivers and dbs to cover them, the Steelers were setting their sights on being able to defend against 11 personnel, the no huddle, and the dual tight end threats that pass happy offenses are now going to. That, coupled with being able to contain a running qb with the addition of Shazier. Great strategy, imo.

  • cencalsteeler

    Williams caught in the wash, Troy playing out of position, and a whole lot of missed tackles by Ike and Ryan Clark can attribute to that stat.

  • pittsburghjoe

    Speaking of speed, Rappaport is reporting that the Steelers are interested in Finley. Im not sure if I can believe anything he writes. Mr. Marczi, any thoughts?

  • SteelersDepot
  • James Kling

    Speed is great, and IMO a necessary infusion. However, technique is still required. Fast + bad tackling = fail. Fast + bad positioning = fail. Fast + bad use of leverage = fail. So we have a very raw defense. How quickly can we reasonably expect it all to gel? A few games? A season? Two or three seasons?

    We need Tomlin, LeBeau, Mitch, Lake, et al. to do a bang-up job of coaching this bunch. We’ve gone from greybeards to greenhorns.

  • steelster

    I agree, nice post.

  • Jeff

    This is the most excited I’ve been about a Steelers defense in 4 years… love the speed…

  • JAMESH

    “Acceleration-compromised.”

  • Matthew Marczi

    As Dave wrote, Rapoport’s report sort of grew legs on its own. From what I understand, he merely reported that he was visiting the facility to see Dr. Maroon, who performed his surgery. I don’t think this indicates any interest by the team in signing him. I believe they’re satisfied with the five tight ends already on the roster competing for 3-4 spots. If he were to have been cleared before the draft, that might have been a different matter.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I was trying to find a courteous yet colorful way of describing it. I hope I succeeded, ha.

  • JAMESH

    Nailed it!

  • dgh57

    If Antwon Blake could develop into a good CB and add S. Thomas to the equation means even more speed on defense!

  • Jonas

    Still, as Tomlin always said, they obviously look for football players and not track guys!
    Of course, they are raw, as the players are in 1st/2nd year, but Shazier for example, as a first round pick, has more to deliver then speed! And Tuitt e.g. is not that big of an technique project for Mitchell, too. Knowing the playbook again will be significant for their early success, but as Lebeau/Tomlin stated that fast guys being out of position can move back quickly into the play after their mistake – it’s the advantage of the so called “mistake speed”..

  • steeltown

    Need for Speed…. check

  • PA2AK

    Don’t forget JJ just trying to figure out where to line up, Kion Wilson was just watching for a bit too!

  • Axe Skot

    All this speed is wearing me out.