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.