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NFL

Not to be left behind, speedy Steelers are on the fast track in NFL

| Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, 7:39 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers running back Dri Archer warms up before the Bills game Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014 at Heinz Field.

Ike Taylor missed the first week of offseason workouts only to learn upon reporting that the Steelers had become Usain Bolt-type fast.

Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier runs faster than cornerbacks once did. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt runs like a linebacker. Dri Archer runs like nobody the Steelers have had — he boasts the second-fastest electronically timed 40-yard dash in NFL Combine history.

“These young guys, they're looking like mutants. You've got guys 220 (pounds) running 4.3s,” Taylor said. “Usually back in the day, only the smaller guys ran that. Now you've got bigger guys running (4.3-second in the 40) times. I don't know what it is in the water or the food, but that's how it is right now.”

It's how it is everywhere.

After being called old and slow for several years, the Steelers are on the fast track to having their fastest team. And they're not the only team adjusting to the speed of the game.

“Usually on one team you've got a super-fast guy,” Taylor said. “(Now) a lot of the guys are fast. We've got Dri, (Brice) McCain, (Markus) Wheaton, Antwon Blake, those guys are exceptionally fast.”

Teams that lack top-end speed are going to be left behind on the field and in the standings.

Coach Mike Tomlin downplays the offseason makeover in which the Steelers got appreciably faster — “It's not a track meet,” he said — but it's evident he believed his team, and especially his defense, were too slow while going 8-8 the past two seasons.

The necessity for across-the-board speed was no more evident than in the Super Bowl, when the Seattle Seahawks weren't just the more physical and more athletic team but also appeared to be playing at a faster speed than the Denver Broncos.

“The Steelers have gotten faster, but the other teams in the league were ahead of the curve in that one,” said former NFL defensive back Solomon Wilcots, an NFL Network analyst. “That's what (coach) Lovie (Smith) had when he was playing those defenses in Chicago. That's what Tampa has always been — they had undersized linebackers, but (Hall of Famer) Derrick Brooks could run. Warren Sapp could run.”

Tomlin remembers. He was a Buccaneers assistant coach when they won the Super Bowl during the 2002 season. Don't think it's a coincidence the Steelers in only two years shaved four years off the median age of their once-top-ranked defense.

“The Steelers are doing two things: By skewing younger, they're going to become faster,” Wilcots said. “And I think smartly so. I think they looked at a team like the Bengals, and they saw the usage of (wide receiver) A.J. Green. They looked at the addition of (running back) Giovani Bernard. Now people are starting to get that third-down back or back/wide receiver type of player that can be dynamic and hard to match. Mike Tomlin said, ‘We need to go get one of those,' ” Wilcots said.

To a league that already had the small-but-swift Danny Woodhead and Darren Sproles, the Steelers added the even faster — and smaller — Archer. Only New York Jets running back Chris Johnson (4.24) has a faster electronic time than Archer's 4.26 since the 40-yard dash became an official time at the combine. He was hand-timed at 4.18.

The NFL has been fast before, just not with so many players.

Olympic sprint star Bob Hayes revolutionized the league when the future Hall of Fame receiver began playing for the Dallas Cowboys in 1965. Even 50 seasons later, he still is widely regarded to as the fastest player ever. Opposing defensive coordinators were forced to develop the zone defense to defend Hayes because he often was too fast to be covered by a single defender.

Based on Hayes' 5.9-second in the 60-yard dash — he once was clocked at 26.9 mph during a race — it was estimated he would have run a sub-4.2 40 even without spikes and a speed-friendly track.

Of course, there is track fast and game fast, and they aren't necessarily equal. As Taylor said, Brandon Marshall is relatively slow by NFL receiver standards (4.52 in the 40) but has 712 career receptions.

Still, collecting speed doesn't guarantee collecting Super Bowl trophies. The late Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders drafted players who ran five of the 10 fastest combine 40 times from 1999 on.

To do so, he passed up future All-Pro defensive back Richard Sherman in 2011 to draft DeMarcus Van Dyke, who flopped with the Raiders and later with the Steelers. And Davis made one of the mystifying picks in recent draft history, devoting a No. 7 overall pick to receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who's now with the Steelers.

Last year, the Buffalo Bills wanted more speed, so they drafted receiver Marquise Goodwin (4.27 in the 40), but he caught only 17 passes.

What's changing in the NFL is that speed no longer is confined to the skill positions.

“I think speed has always been a trend. When Jimmy Johnson came to Dallas and built the Cowboys, that was his emphasis: speed. It's always been there,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. “I just think with the amount of spread offenses that you see now, if you've got speed, it can eliminate some of those big plays from being touchdowns.

“And if you don't, well, (Washington Redskins wide receiver) DeSean Jackson had eight plays of 40 yards or more last year.”

The speed-deficient Steelers allowed 11 plays of 50 yards or more and 17 plays of 40 yards or more.

“You'd better have fast guys to either score on offense or stop teams from scoring on defense,” Baldinger said.

So where does the NFL go? The players not only are faster, but so is the speed of the game that every rookie must adjust to. And that speed seems even faster because more and more teams are installing the quick-tempo offenses that force defenses to play and adjust faster.

For a change, the Steelers are one of the teams in the fast lane.

“(Speed) is only good when a player knows how to use it,” Taylor said. “When a player doesn't know how to use it, it really doesn't matter.

“But in the NFL, yeah, the boys are getting fast.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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