Inside Slant: On defense, the Steelers have addressed a need for speed

Pittsburgh has increased its speed with players such as Ryan Shazier, part of a multiyear evolution. AP Photo/Don Wright

(For all Inside Slant posts, follow this link.)

LATROBE, Pa. -- Bodies were flying this week on the campus of St. Vincent College, home of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp. During a particularly spirited team drill, linebacker Vince Williams decked running back Cameron Stingily. Safety Gerod Holliman and fullback Roosevelt Nix collided, each crumpling to the ground. First-round draft pick Bud Dupree dropped out after dislocating a finger. Guard Chris Hubbard fractured his toe.

"We're not supposed to be hitting our teammates that way," linebacker Ryan Shazier said, "but sometimes you have to show them you can't come into the middle of the defense without getting punished."

This mayhem was Steelers football as we've always known it: brash, physical, conscious-free body-mashing in preparation for the 2015 season. If you looked closely, however, you saw a fresh element as well. The Steelers' physicality is now supplemented by a new element of speed, especially on defense -- the product of an intentional multiyear evolution designed to match spread offenses, elevate matchup flexibility and create more turnovers. They key to the Steelers' Super Bowl hopes this season might be whether this defensive shift can match that of the Steelers' offense.

"We needed to get faster," new defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. "That's where defense in this league is going now."

There has been plenty of attention, of course, on the Steelers' rejuvenated offense, one centered around a quicker tempo for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But as Roethlisberger set career highs for attempts in each of the past two seasons, the Steelers' defense aged before our eyes.

Its decline was evident most notably in the marked decrease in takeaways detailed in the chart accompanying this post. During the past four seasons, in fact, the Steelers forced an NFL-low 76 turnovers.

Trends were easy to spot as they replenished personnel. Shazier, their top draft pick in 2014, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds at his college pro day. Shamarko Thomas (4.42) was the fastest safety at the 2013 scouting combine. Dupree (4.56) was the third-fastest linebacker to run at the 2015 combine. Cornerback Brandon Boykin, acquired this week from the Philadelphia Eagles, ran a 4.44 in 2012.

"Speed is going to be a huge part of this defense this year," Shazier said. "I feel like some of the calls coach Butler is going to make are in certain situations going to help out when it comes to speed. I don't want people to stop thinking that we are a hard-hitting defense. We're still a hard-hitting defense. ... but I feel like the speed of our defense is going to be a really big part of it."

On the surface, Butler seems an unlikely candidate to lead a renaissance in the wake of longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's departure. He spent the past 15 seasons as an NFL linebackers coach, including 11 under LeBeau, and at 59, Butler admits he holds no secrets to fielding an elite defense. Rather, the shift in thought is merely a recognition that different avenues can lead to a familiar endgame.

Speaking under the shade of a flowing tree before a recent practice, Butler said he has long figured there are three ways to lose on defense: "One is missed tackles, one is mistakes and the other is to let them throw the ball over your head." A faster group can minimize all three of those issues, and Butler hopes the most immediate impact will come in tackling.

"Everyone wants a swarming defense, and the thing is, that's about getting people to the ball," he said. "That's as big of a part of tackling as anything. You can't help sometimes that you miss tackles, but if you have other guys running to the ball, getting there and being around it, you can make up for a miss. If one guy misses, you want to have the next guy right there. If we swarm to the ball, we can minimize those effects."

Coverage options should expand as well. A player with Shazier's speed, for example, can be trusted to stay with tight ends and even slot receivers in a way that many linebackers could not.

"I feel like our speed will help in matchups a lot," Shazier said. "We won't have to double-team as much when we have guys that can cover guys. And then in certain situations, it'll be guys breaking on the ball a lot faster. If we're in a zone defense, and guys are breaking on the ball really fast, big plays can happen. Or, a guy can break really fast and cause the ball to pop out. Or maybe he tips it and causes an interception."

Indeed, turnover totals seem the best gauge of the effectiveness of a fast defense. A defense's base job is to get the ball back to the offense, but it doesn't have to come via punt. A league-high 63 takeaways, for example, has helped power the Seattle Seahawks' elite defense over the past two seasons. In their two Super Bowl appearances under coach Mike Tomlin, in 2008 and 2010, the Steelers ranked ninth and third in takeaways, respectively.

To be clear, raw speed is not always the same as football speed. A track team can't necessarily win football games. And in the Steelers' case, they've had trouble keeping some of their fastest players on the field. Shazier missed seven games last season and Thomas sat out five, and nagging injuries have caused both to miss practice time this summer.

Perhaps that's why veteran cornerback William Gay was skeptical of the speed theory, at least at the moment. He suggested the Steelers' 2008 defense might have been faster than the current edition and added: "We are going to be ready to run and hit. They drafted a lot of speed, but we need to display it."

Sounds like a plan.