Ike Taylor is a savvy veteran, 11 NFL seasons completed with a 12th in the offing. It took him only part of a single OTA session to notice the difference.
"Super-duper fast," said Taylor when asked about the speed potential for the Steelers defense in 2014. "William Gay texted me all last week saying, '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.' When you look at it on the field and you actually play with them, you can see that they are running."
They are running. Running fast. And it's not just the defense, and it's not just because of the rookies.
The Steelers participate in Day 5 of the 2014 Organized Team Activities at the Steelers' practice facility.
First-round pick Ryan Shazier is an inside linebacker who runs faster than the majority of defensive backs currently in the NFL, and his 4.4 in the 40-yard dash at the Ohio State Pro Day was faster than the time wide receiver Sammy Watkins posted at the Scouting Combine. And Dri Archer's 4.26 leaves both of them in the dust.
But the Steelers' speed injection over the course of this offseason goes beyond a couple of draft picks. It also can be found in the emergence of some of the younger players already on the roster – Cam Heyward, Lawrence Timmons, Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones, Markus Wheaton – as well as in the additions the team has made both in free agency – Mike Mitchell – and in the draft besides the obvious – Stephon Tuitt.
And the most significant of those additions just might be Mitchell as the free safety who will replace Ryan Clark in the starting lineup.
"It can create mismatches that are uncomfortable," said Coach Mike Tomlin about a situation where the opposing offense has a speed advantage. "Speed is the type of thing on offense that can generate yards in chunks and ring up the scoreboard with very little execution. That's a conversation that defenses don't like to have. That's something that makes them uncomfortable, and the reality is when you have guys in positions with unique speed it creates unique problems from a defensive standpoint from a matchup perspective. That's worrisome."
The Steelers experienced this discomfort in rather dramatic fashion 17 different times during last year's 8-8 season that left them out of the playoffs for a second straight year. That 17 represents the number of plays in which opponents gained 40-plus yards either rushing or passing. Five of those 17 plays, in Tomlin's words, rang up the scoreboard with very little execution, too.
"You have to cover up for it schematically, and of course that puts a lot of pressure on the defensive play-caller, particularly situationally," said Tomlin about the strategy that becomes necessary when the defense is at a speed deficit. "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."
Mitchell is going to help immeasurably with the speed in the secondary, and Shazier joining a corps of linebackers that includes Timmons, Worilds, and Jones could have a similar impact once he fully grasps the demands of the scheme.
"He has almost unlimited potential," said coordinator Dick LeBeau of Shazier. "He's one of those rare athletes who can probably do about anything you ask him to do. You look at a guy like him and you say, 'Wow, we can do some things with that guy.' By the time we picked him, I already had a couple of blitzes in mind for him, let's put it that way."
When the subject is speed, it's only natural to focus on the players on the perimeter – the receivers, defensive backs, running backs, linebackers. But the Steelers defense in 2014 also should be able to point to the defensive line as an area where they will be improved in the speed department, thanks to Heyward and Tuitt. Those two are examples of players who cannot be considered fast in the manner of Dri Archer, but they are faster than the typical defensive linemen, which creates an advantage of its own.
"It helps in mis-direction runs, reverses, the screen game," said Tomlin. "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."
Tomlin agrees that the Steelers have gotten faster on defense, but he believes much of it can be traced to the unit getting younger. Youth and speed go together, but he said the idea behind the moves made this offseason had nothing to do with trying to win a track meet.
"Speed is an asset, but I don't think it was something at the top of our agenda board," said Tomlin. "We value guys whose speed is an asset for them, but we don't place too much of a value on it. They have to be football players first. The guys we acquired who happen to be really fast also happen to be very good football players. I don't want to underrate that."
When it comes to speed, though, there is fast, and then there is Dri Archer.
"What you have heard is true," said Tomlin, laughing. "Dri Archer is really fast."
General Manager Kevin Colbert put it this way: "When you talk about Dri Archer, you talk about unique speed. Ryan Shazier ran a 4.4. Dri, we laughed at him as he was leaving our interview room at the Combine, because Coach Tomlin asked him, 'What are you going to run (in the 40 tomorrow)?' He said, '4.2,' and Coach Tomlin and I both chuckled a little bit. Then lo and behold, he ran a 4.26, which is extremely fast. For a short guy, he covered 40 yards in 17 strides, which is unique."
The Steelers are faster, and now they will spend the next three-plus months working on finding ways to use that speed to their advantage for the games that begin on Sept. 7.
"I think we've added speed at just about every position," said Tomlin. "Guys like Ryan and Dri 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."