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To compete with the top guns in the AFC, the Steelers must address their need for speed

The Pittsburgh Steelers need to get faster, and that was evident vs. the Chiefs in the Wild Card round.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone over the age of 30 is probably familiar with the film “Top Gun,” which has contributed heavily to America’s pop culture lexicon. “Top Gun” was a box office smash in the late 1980s and has had impressive staying-power in the years since. It made Aviator sunglasses cool, turned the song “Danger Zone” into an anthem and inspired adolescent boys everywhere to think becoming a fighter pilot would get them into bed with Kelly McGillis.

One of the iconic moments from the film was an exchange between Tom Cruise’s character Maverick and his partner, Goose. When informed that their rival, Ice, played with sublime smugness by Val Kilmer, had won another battle in their group’s simulated war games, Maverick sneered, then delivered a line upon which a testosterone-laced bro-mance like “Top Gun” thrives:

“I feel the need… the need for speed.”

Mav and Goose then slapped five like playground heroes who had just beaten a couple of sixth-graders in two-on-two:

I thought of that line as I watched the Kansas City Chiefs race up and down the field against the Steelers on Sunday night. Their speed was the most obvious mismatch of the contest. The Steelers kept it in check for a bit, on defense at least. Their offense, however, was typically feckless. Unable to sustain a drive, they gave Kansas City too many opportunities to find a rhythm. Once they did, a track meet ensued. The Chiefs ran around like they had rockets in their cleats. The Steelers moved like theirs were filled with cement.

The athletic mismatch underscored one of the most basic truths of modern football: speed kills. The amount of pressure a fast team puts on its opponent cannot be understated. Consider the photo below of Kansas City’s offense against Pittsburgh’s defense. While the Steelers crowd the ball to try to create some confusion in the box, look at the room they provide to Kansas City’s receivers:

Defenses back off like this because they’re afraid of getting beat deep. This is sound thinking, in theory, as it creates cushions for defenders in coverage. But smart coaches use the space these cushions provide to find other ways to be successful. The Chiefs’ Andy Reid, and his offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, are two such coaches. They exploit space by creating ways to get the ball to their lightning-quick backs and receivers and then letting them run:

That was Jerick McKinnon, one of the lesser-known horses in Kansas City’s stable. He accumulated 142 yards on 18 touches Sunday night, most of which came on screen passes and slashing runs. McKinnon has speed to burn, and with Pittsburgh backed off to protect against the “big play,” he used the space they provided to gash them repeatedly.

Of course, the “back off so we don’t get run behind” theory can be counter-intuitive. When a fast receiver gets a free release, he has a great opportunity to set up a defender. That’s how Joe Haden got beat on this double-move from Byron Pringle. Pringle ran “Sluggo,” or slant-and-go, and Haden, playing aggressively near the goal line, jumped at the slant move. That allowed Pringle to beat him cleanly on the “go” for the touchdown that gave Kansas City a lead it would never relinquish:

Speed can also turn seemingly harmless plays into big ones. Take this catch and run by Travis Kelce that preceded Pringle’s touchdown. Kelce, crossing the middle of the field from just outside the left hash, caught the football about six yards past the line of scrimmage with three Pittsburgh defenders in the vicinity. Instead of turning upfield and plowing ahead, like most tight ends would do, Kelce accelerated and ran past a pair of cornerbacks, Haden and Cam Sutton. What should have been an unremarkable play became a gain of 30 yards:

Contrast these examples to what we saw when the Steelers’ had the football. Kansas City, with no fear of being beaten deep, or of any Steeler who was a threat in space, crowded the receivers, jammed the box and strangled Pittsburgh at the line of scrimmage.

This put pressure on the receivers to win one-on-one matchups down the field, and on Ben Roethlisberger to locate his throws perfectly. More often than not, the result looked something like this:

Notice how Kansas City’s corner jumped outside on Diontae Johnson at the snap, forcing him to take an inside release. Meanwhile, safety Juan Thornhill (22) fell off the line of scrimmage to get underneath a potential slant route. Pittsburgh’s offense had reached a level of predictability so great that the Chiefs knew exactly what to expect. They did not fear Johnson running to the post, which was unguarded, because they knew the Steelers don’t throw there. And they trusted their corner to not get beat if Johnson broke that way. This allowed them to sit on the two things the Steelers rely upon in the passing game: quick throws and fade balls. The combination of a lack of speed and an offense that was exceptionally stale made this play easy to defend.

As for those fade balls, the fact that Pittsburgh’s receivers were largely unable to separate from coverage made the margin of error on these plays miniscule. This throw from Roethlisberger to Chase Claypool, for example, was a little high. That said, if a team is going to rely on these types of throws, it’s a ball they need Claypool to catch:

They did complete a couple of these to James Washington, including this beauty for a late touchdown. You can see, though, that Washington has no separation from the corner, and that the degree of difficulty is extremely high:

So, while speed alone cannot guarantee an offense will be successful — a coaching staff must know how to use that speed, and speedy players must also be good at football — it can generate easier opportunities than the ones the Steelers were forced to rely upon.

The Chiefs are probably the fastest team in the NFL, but they don’t own a monopoly on speed. Two of the other top teams in the AFC, Buffalo and Cincinnati, are built for speed as well. With apologies to the Tennessee Titans, who are constructed more like a team from the “Top Gun” era, one of these exceptionally fast teams will likely emerge from the AFC as its conference champion. All three teams, with young, superstar quarterbacks, fleet players at the skill positions and speed to burn on defense, are built to last. Kansas City, Buffalo and Cincinnati represent a new reality in the AFC. The conference is deep, and it is fast.

This presents a sobering challenge for the Steelers. To compete with these teams, Pittsburgh will need to get faster as well. Their lack of team speed was especially glaring in their four games against Cincinnati and Kansas City, in which the Steelers went 0-4 and were outscored 141-51, with most of Pittsburgh’s points coming in garbage time. The speed factor was especially evident when considering explosive plays, or plays of 15 yards or more. Cincinnati doubled up the Steelers in this department, with an advantage of 14-7. Kansas City’s was even greater, at 21-8. Combined, the Chiefs and Bengals had 35 plays of 15 yards or more against the Steelers while the Steelers managed 15 such plays in return. While speed was not solely responsible for the disparity, it played a significant role.

The Steelers played Buffalo, too, in the season opener back in September, and managed to upset the Bills. They did so in large part by catching the Bills off guard with heavy doses of their dime defense, putting more speed on the field for the purpose of matching Buffalo’s. It worked, but largely because the Bills stubbornly refused to run the football. Buffalo threw 51 times and ran it just 25. Given a chance to do it again, Buffalo would likely rethink that strategy.

What can the Steelers do to get faster, then? To answer that question, let’s examine the roster.

On offense, they clearly need a change-of-pace back to pair with Najee Harris. The Steelers may have felt they had one in Anthony McFarland, but he has shown little in two seasons. A player like Kansas City’s McKinnon would give Pittsburgh a dimension they sorely lack.

At receiver, they need an upgrade from Ray-Ray McCloud as their shifty slot-type. They could use a burner on the outside, too, someone who can actually separate from press coverage and threaten a defense over the top. While Claypool has good straight-ahead speed, he takes awhile to get going, which hinders his ability to separate. Johnson, meanwhile, is more quick than fast and has shown himself to be more adept operating underneath than deep down the field.

On the line, the Steelers need an athletic upgrade so they can run some of the outside zone schemes that are so prevalent in the league these days. Pittsburgh was almost exclusively an inside zone team by the end of the season, which greatly limited their playbook and allowed defenses to drop safeties aggressively as inside-run fitters. An infusion of athleticism up front would provide a horizontal stretch in the run game they desperately need.

Defensively, the Steelers lack speed at inside linebacker and corner. Devin Bush played the season despite not having fully recovered from his ACL injury. His performance suffered as a result. And Robert Spillane, while a solid run-defender, was a liability in space. Both players struggled to keep up against the Bengals and Chiefs.

At corner, with Joe Haden likely leaving, there is a void that must be filled. Preferably, the Steelers should seek a young player who can run. They need answers in coverage for Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs and Ja’Marr Chase. While those answers are not easy to come by, drafting or signing a fast, young corner would be a good start.

Who might these players be? That’s a subject for a future article, as we now have a long off-season to dissect the available talent. For now, though, it’s imperative the Steelers understand their deficiency in this area and formulate a plan to address it. Speed, in and of itself, is not the answer to all the problems they face. And players who are better suited for track than football are not long for this league. The best teams know how to identify ones who can both run and fill a role within their scheme. If the Steelers are to rejoin the top guns in the AFC, they must find a way to do the same.