In basic training, everyone is assigned a partner, referred to as your "battle buddy". You and your battle buddy are generally together more often than not. My battle buddy was a mammoth of a human being named Desmond Heyward. At 6'5 and about 250, he had less fat than a steam broiled chicken breast and made my 6'2", 195 look puny by comparison. If his claims were to be believed, he had a 600lb squat and a 450lb bench press. He certainly looked capable enough.
At night and on the weekends, we used to do a variety of things to pass the time. A lot of time would be spent writing home, but there's only so many letters you can write. One of our favorite activities was MMA-style wrestling. We did quite a bit of Jiujitsu style training, so we had a decent foundation. Much like real MMA, they goal was not to pin someone, but to get them to submit, or "tap out".
The "ring" was nothing more than a clear spot in the middle of the barracks floor. Just about everyone got into the ring at some point, but Heyward was far and away considered to be the ultimate prize. Beat Heyward, and you gained the respect of everyone in the unit. Just about everyone with a working pair attempted at one point or other, but nobody seemed to be able to beat him.
I remember the day I decided to take on Heyward. I watched person after person come up against him and get overpowered and pummeled into submission. Most of the time he didn't put an actual submission hold on anyone, but simply squeezed them so hard they could no longer breathe. Heyward was definitely strong. Really strong. There was one thing I knew about him that not many others did, however. Heyward only did seventeen pushups in his first attempt at our PT test. Strong, but limited.
I challenged Heyward that day with a very specific strategy in mind: don't let him get a hold of me. Heyward came out like a raging bear, but I quickly dodged and moved out of the way. He tried to grab me again, but I slipped away like a greased pig. Time and time again he tried to take me down, but he simply couldn't get a hold of me to do so. After a minute or two that felt more like an hour, Heyward collapsed to the ground, huffing and puffing, completely out of breath and out of gas. I moved in hoping to get him in a rear naked choke, but I never got the chance. He tapped out. I officially became the only person ever to get Heyward to tap out. It was a win based on a technicality for sure, but a win is a win.
So now you might be asking yourself, what the hell does this have to do with football? Just take a look around the league and tell me what you see. Many of the wide-outs are tall, powerful guys. They pummel defenders off the line and use their size and strength to over-match defenders for the ball. Naturally, this tends to work well, at least at first. At some point an interesting thing happens: teams will start drafting defenders to match. More and more guys are looking more like Cam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, and Ike Taylor than Antoine Winfield.
When an opponent develops a strength in a certain aspect of their game, you don't try to overpower their strength, you try to exploit their weakness. If teams are looking for bigger, stronger corners to combat bigger, stronger wide-outs, you can do as other teams do and keep trying to "out big" everyone else OR you can go the opposite direction and "out small" them. That seems to be the Steelers' strategy these days. This was painfully obvious while I was watching the Steelers training camp. I've seen Ike Taylor completely shut down big players like A.J. Green. I then watched him get shaken out of his shoes by a nasty cut by Antonio Brown. Both Brown and Sanders seemed to be able to shake just about anyone that tried to stick with them. Both were running around the field like a paranoid jackrabbit on too many shots of espresso. They were just too quick for anyone to keep tabs on.
No matter how big, strong, or even fast a defensive back is, his size and speed serves little purpose if he's lost on a quick head fake and double move. With many teams going the bigger stronger route, smaller and quicker can prove to be a distinct advantage. When everyone else is trying to match up strength for strength, sometimes it's better to try to exploit their weakness. The Steelers' receiving corps appear to be built to do exactly that. Sometimes, smaller is better.