The clear theme this off season has been getting bigger, tougher, and better in the trenches. On offense, that means building an OL that can protect the QB, and maybe even of greater importance an OL that can open holes for the run game. Khan and Co. have delivered on promises to emphasize the run game and winning at the line of scrimmage overall, and fans have bought in and are excited about it. But have we gotten so excited that we've forgotten that there is still more to football than just winning at the line of scrimmage?
Like just about everyone else, I've been salivating at the possibilities of jumbo packages featuring Freiermuth, Washington, Heyward, and Harris all on the field at the same time. As exciting as it is, though, it is possible to over commit to any style of play, and NFL defenses will take advantage of offenses that become one dimensional, even if they're very good at that one thing. We've lamented for years now that the lack of a deep passing game has severely limited our offense. In the off season, fans' perspectives shift and we tend to focus on the shiny new thing, but is the lack of explosive plays downfield not going to be a problem come October?
Matt Canada has soaked up a lot of the blame for the lack of downfield passing, and a lot of that may be deserved. Kenny Pickett's inexperience and Trubisky's overall mediocrity have also been implicated, not unjustly. But there's another big factor too, and that's that last year we really didn't have anyone on the roster with the speed to keep safeties deep... and we still don't, unless it's Calvin Austin.
I realize Antonio Brown was a deadly deep threat who really didn't have speed, and guys with average speed certainly can get open deep with good route running and release skills, but speed certainly doesn't hurt and the guys who can be legitimate deep threats without it are the exception rather than the rule. Now take this in: George Pickens - 4.47, Diontae Johnson - 4.53, Allen Robinson - 4.6 (when he was young and healthy). Again, I know Pickens doesn't necessarily need to run away from people to be open, but if I'm an opposing defensive coordinator, which of those guys is supposed to scare me away from dropping a safety into the box to make it harder for the Steelers to run the ball?
I'm not saying we can go ahead and stick a fork in this season because we don't have a lot of speed at WR. I'm overall pretty pleased with our WR group, actually. I think it does need to be acknowledged, though, that our offense is big, tough, physical... and slow. If the Steelers don't have any legitimate speed threat, that's a deficiency opposing defenses will exploit, and that's why the Steelers may need Austin to be successful to fully reach their potential as an offense. Or maybe it's not Austin, maybe they need to find a way to get something out of Miles Boykin, although it certainly seems like that ship has sailed. However they do it, adding a speed element on the field stretches the opposing defenses, making everything else on offense easier, and it allows you to fully capitalize on opponents' mistakes with easy scores.
There's no doubt the Steelers have laid the foundation for a good offense with their emphasis on winning in the trenches and establishing the run game, and a WR corps of Pickens, Johnson, and Robinson is by no means garbage. The question is, is it good enough to make noise in the postseason without a real speed threat on the field? How much better can this offense be if they also have some speed on the field as well? Could a need for speed push Austin onto the field for significant snaps, even if he's overall not as good a receiver as the guy he replaces? Or is Pickens fast enough to, combined with his contested catch ability, provide all the deep threat the offense needs? Dominating at the line of scrimmage is important, and it's exciting that the Steelers look ready and able to do that this season, but I think the question marks when it comes to team speed are going to be interesting and important to keep an eye on still as well.