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Adding speed on offense should be a top priority for the Steelers this offseason

The Pittsburgh Steelers need a lot of help on offense, but adding speed to the roster would top the list.

NFL: DEC 22 Steelers at Jets Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With a little more than seven minutes remaining in Super Bowl 54, the Kansas City Chiefs, trailing the San Francisco 49ers 20-10, faced a 3rd and 15 from their own 35 yard line. To that point, the 49ers defense had assaulted the Chiefs offense for most of the night, sacking star quarterback Patrick Mahomes three times and harassing him into a pair of ugly interceptions and several other errant throws. According to ESPN, as the teams lined up for that crucial 3rd down play, San Francisco had a win probability of 94.3%. The odds seemed fairly certain that Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid would extend his streak as the winningest coach in NFL history never to claim a Super Bowl.

But then Reid, whose explosive offense was built largely on versatility, deception and the freakishly talented Mahomes, leaned on the other element that made it so good: speed. The Chiefs are fast at just about every skill position on offense, with no one faster than wide-out Tyreek Hill. Hill, who ran an absurd 4.29 40 yard dash coming out of college, used his blazing speed to create separation on a post-corner route. The offensive line provided just enough protection for Mahomes, who took a gloriously deep drop to buy Hill time to run. The quarterback launched the ball into the Miami night, and when it came down Hill was waiting. Kansas City had a 44 yard gain deep into San Francisco territory. The completion galvanized the Chiefs’ offense. They finished the drive four plays later with a touchdown pass to tight end Travis Kelce, then scored twice more in the final six minutes to earn Reid his long-awaited Super Bowl ring.

The completion to Hill illuminated just how important speed is in professional football. The Steelers have plenty of it on defense, where recent acquisitions Devin Bush, Mark Barron, Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick, all of whom can run, have helped transform them into a Top 5 unit. On offense, however, they lack players with elite burst capable of making plays like the one Hill did in that crucial situation on Sunday. Let’s take a closer look at the play that saved the Super Bowl for the Chiefs before addressing the following questions: Are the Steelers fast enough on offense? And, if not, what should they do about it?

Here’s the completion to Hill in its entirety before we break it into smaller parts:

Kansas City aligned on the play in a 3x1 formation with second tight end Blake Bell (81) in a “nub” position opposite the trips. San Francisco bracketed Bell with a linebacker underneath and corner Richard Sherman over the top. This took Bell away but left a single deep safety to defend the three receivers to the field.

Or did it? It’s hard to say how San Francisco intended to defend the trips look. The problem is corner Emmanuel Moseley (41), who drove on the inside cut by Sammy Watkins (14), the widest of the three receivers. Watch Moseley come into the frame late at about the San Francisco 42 yard line as he chased Watkins to the post:

Because no route threatened the flat, and because two San Francisco defenders were taking zone drops underneath of Watkins, it feels like Moseley should have provided deep help here. To leave that responsibility to a single safety (Jimmie Ward, #20) with the speedy Hill in the slot and Watkins outside, seems reckless on San Francisco’s part. One of three things is probably true, then: either Moseley blew the coverage (probably cover-2 or cover-3) and left Ward to defend the entire deep half of the field; or, Moseley did the right thing by carrying Watkins, in which case it was probably cover-4, and slot corner K’Waun Williams (24) screwed up when he failed to stay with Hill as he went vertical; or, most likely, the 49ers were playing a combo coverage where they went man on the outside receiver (Watkins) while playing some sort of trap on the inside receivers (Hill and Kelce).

Whatever the defense, the thing that made this play work was Hill’s brilliant speed and exceptional route-running. Look in the still frames below at how Hill drove to the post until he got Ward to open his hips. Ward still had a five yard cushion, but because Hill is so fast, he got out of his backpedal early and started to run. The second Hill saw Ward open to the post, he put his foot in the ground and burst away from him to the corner.

Ward (20) reads the release of Hill (circled) and begins to backpedal
Hill drives to the post, setting Ward up
Ward opens to the post and Hill immediately bursts back outside; there is no way Ward can recover in time.

The Chiefs bet on their team speed here and took a calculated risk. Knowing San Francisco would guard the sticks, they gambled that they could protect Mahomes long enough to get Hill in space against the safety, where they knew he could win over the top. The gamble paid off and an epic Super Bowl comeback commenced.

Team speed is a theme in Kansas City, especially on offense. While Hill is by far their fastest player, he is by no means the only one who can run. Watkins has Juju Smith-Schuster’s size (both are 6’1 and weight between 210 and 215 pounds) but is faster (Watkins clocked a 4.43 at the NFL Combine, while Juju ran 4.54). Rookie receiver Mecole Hardman is a speedster and a legitimate home-run threat who averaged over twenty yards per reception this season. Meanwhile, running backs Damien Williams (4.45) and Darwin Thompson (4.50) have receiver speed and freakish athleticism, with Thompson recording a remarkable 39 inch vertical jump at the Combine. Even Kelce, the tight end, can run. The Chiefs like to split him out wide to take advantage of the match-up problems his combination of size and speed create for opposing defenses. Pair all of that speed with the dynamic Mahomes, who can make any throw from just about anywhere on the field, and the Chiefs are, to put it mildly, hard to defend.

The Steelers? Not so much. An offense that was dangerous just two years ago looks quite ordinary at present. Forget the 2019 debacle for a moment and look ahead to 2020. Offensively, the Steelers will feature an aging Roethlisberger returning from serious injury at quarterback; a trio of backs in James Conner, Benny Snell Jr. and Jaylen Samuels who are capable players but lack explosiveness; and a host of wide-outs who are young and talented but, like the running backs, lack anyone who can threaten a defense the way Kansas City does.

The Steelers thought they had signed a speedy outside receiver to play opposite of Juju when they inked free agent Donte Moncrief last off-season. Moncrief’s stint in Pittsburgh was brief and unspectacular, leaving the team without a player who can take the top off of coverage. Juju, for all of his assets, is not typically a deep-ball threat. His career average of 13.7 yards per reception is modest by league standards. Juju is more physical than he is fast, and when he breaks big plays it’s usually his power that shakes him loose.

Ditto for James Washington. Washington has become the team’s go-to vertical threat. But Washington, despite an average of 15.9 yards per catch through two seasons, is also more of a physical receiver than a speedster. Washington often uses his powerful 5’11-213 pound frame to out-muscle defenders rather than to run by them. His 4.54 40 time is mediocre for an outside receiver.

Then there’s rookie Diontae Johnson, who showed potential as a home run hitter due to his quick change-of-direction and precise route running. It will be interesting to see if Johnson becomes more dangerous once Roethlisberger returns. Under Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges, though, Johnson was the definition of a possession receiver, averaging 11.5 yards per catch.

Last week I argued in favor of adding a “move” tight end to pair with current starter Vance McDonald as a means of making the offense more explosive. McDonald is another big, physical target who lacks elite speed, while his current backup, Nick Vannett, is a solid blocker but a plodder in the passing game. Available free agents who could fill the “move” role and stretch the middle of the field include Hunter Henry and Eric Ebron. But those players may be too expensive for Pittsburgh’s limited cap space. The draft may not provide a tight end in this mold, either.

One player on the current roster who does seem to have the type of speed that can threaten defenses vertically is Deon Cain. Cain, at 6’2-200 with sub 4.5 speed, has great measurables. But Cain has mostly been a practice squad player in the NFL and has just nine career catches. Betting on Cain seems like a risky proposition.

What to do, then? How can the Steelers become more explosive offensively? To preface that question, it’s hard to gauge what they will look like since Roethlisberger’s injury rendered 2019 useless while 2018 is uninformative since so much of the offense revolved around Brown. However, as I’ve documented in the past, I believe bolstering the Steelers run game, which has finished near the bottom of the league the past couple of seasons, would provide Roethlisberger a much-needed security blanket. Big Ben is more likely to resemble Jimmy Garoppolo than he is Patrick Mahomes when he returns. Still, the Niners ranked in the top ten in passing efficiency in 2019 because their run game allowed them to exploit teams who loaded the box with play-action and vertical concepts that created easy throws for Garoppolo. A better run game would do the same for Roethlisberger, who at age 38 is not likely to win many games if he’s asked to throw the ball two-thirds of the time like the Steelers did in 2018.

Will they? I don’t know. The addition of Matt Canada to the offensive staff is intriguing but I hesitate to suggest it will lead to a transformation. Big Ben is an old dog and I don’t know how many new tricks he’s willing to learn. My suspicion, then, is the 2020 offense will look a lot like the 2018 offense, with plenty of vertical and horizontal stretches out of 11 personnel formations. An improved run game and an athletic tight end would be great but I don’t expect the passing game to look like San Francisco’s with an emphasis on play-action. Nor do I think the offense will look like Kansas City’s with a host of shifts, motions and gadgets. Canada should provide some fresh ideas but I’m not anticipating much of this:

(For the record, I thought this play was gimmicky as hell and I don’t think we should load the offense with this sort of stuff. You gotta love the choreographed pirouettes, however).

Even if the Steelers do invest in the run game or add an athletic tight end, they will need more speed to be successful. It is unrealistic to expect that, simply because Roethlisberger is back, the Steelers can plug in the 2018 offense with 2019’s personnel. That 2018 unit succeeded because of a healthy Big Ben and a prime Antonio Brown, with Juju a perfect compliment as the #2 receiver. This unit is not as dynamic. A home-run hitter who can put defenses on their heels feels like a necessity.

Pursuing Moncrief last off-season was the right idea, if not the right result. Who might the Steelers target this year to fill that role? One realistic option is Tampa Bay free agent Breshad Perriman. Perriman, 27, is a five-year pro who caught 36 passes for 645 yards and an impressive 17.9 yards per catch in 2019. Perriman is a burner who ran 4.24 at the Combine back in 2015 and remains one of the fastest players in the league. The knock on Perriman is he’s played for three teams in five years, which suggests he is unproductive. That was indeed the case in Baltimore, where Perriman caught just 43 balls in three seasons. He moved on to Cleveland in 2018 but was made expendable when the Browns acquired Odell Beckham. That landed Perriman in Tampa on a one-year deal.

Perriman has not caught a lot of passes in his career (95 receptions in 51 games) but in the past two seasons he’s gone 52-985 for an average of 19 yards per catch. Of those 52 catches, nearly forty percent of them (20) went for twenty yards or more. Perriman might be a one-trick pony but his one trick — stretching the defense — is a good one. He is big at 6’2 and his combination of size and speed makes him an ideal candidate to both attack press coverage (see below) and to take the top off of a zone. He would be a nice fit in Pittsburgh’s four receiver packages and could push Washington or Johnson for reps in 11 personnel sets.

Perriman’s one-year deal in Tampa paid him $4 million so it would likely take slightly more to get something done. The Steelers signed Moncrief last season to a two-year, $9 million contract which included a $3.5 million signing bonus. They would probably have to go higher to nab Perriman. Whether they would be willing to pay $10 million on a potential two-year deal to a guy who would be slotted as the fourth receiver is questionable. The addition of Perriman to the receiving corps, however, would make the Steelers much more dangerous in the passing game.

The Steelers may look to the draft for a speed receiver, where, according to the Artist Formerly Known as Drop The Hammer, TCU’s Jalen Reagor would be a great fit. In that case, they could improve their team speed by adding a quick back. Kerith Whyte emerged as a runner who could get to the edge late in 2019 while also showing some potential as a kick returner. But Whyte was bad in pass protection and could not run between the tackles, thus limiting his effectiveness.

The RaidersDeAndre Washington would be an upgrade from Whyte as a player who can run both inside and outside in addition to catching the ball well. Washington had 387 rushing yards and 292 receiving yards for the Raiders in 2019 and is coming off a rookie contract that, as a 5th round pick out of Texas Tech, earned him an average of just under $700,000 a year. He would be a much more affordable alternative to Perriman if the Steelers prefer to address the backfield. Washington is just 5’8 but is powerfully-built and finishes runs hard. With his short, choppy steps and ability to cut quickly, he is reminiscent of a poor man’s Darren Sproles:

One way or another, a player who can stretch the field either vertically or horizontally would be a boon to the offense in 2019. With Roethlisberger returning to the lineup and help (hopefully) on the way through the draft, the addition of a speedy play-maker could provide the big-play element necessary to make this a dangerous offense once again.