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Fast Learners: The Steelers' linebackers are younger and faster, but will that make them better? 

In the pass-happy NFL, getting faster on defense may be the only way to survive

Defensive end Cam Heyward
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Defensive end Cam Heyward is part of the Steelers' younger, faster defense.

The 2013 season raised a host of questions about the Steelers' once-vaunted defense — and summer training camp made it pretty clear where they hope to find the answer.

"Speed is your weapon! Speed is your weapon!" bellowed Joey Porter, the outstanding former linebacker and first-year defensive assistant coach, as the linebacking unit drilled on the St. Vincent College field.

The NFL has been trying to legislate defense out of the game for the past 10 years or so, and with the league's renewed emphasis on limiting hand-chucks in the defensive secondary this year, receivers will have even more room to roam, creating more opportunities for pass-happy offenses. If you were a defensive player and felt beleaguered by all of this, you'd have a right to. But you'd still have to tailor your skills and schemes to survive — and the only viable response might be speed.

The Pittsburgh Steelers know that, and they've spent the summer drumming it into the heads of their defense.

Gone are the team's former household names: James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote and Ryan Clark. They've been replaced by a nucleus of fresher talent, and with all this youth comes speed, especially at the linebacking position.

Or so the coaching staff hopes.

The linebacking corps is anchored by the surprisingly quick Lawrence Timmons, the most underrated LB in the NFL. And the emphasis on speed has been increasingly evident in recent drafts. The Steelers selected Sean Spence in 2012; he returns this year from a horrific knee injury to battle for one of the starting spots. In 2013 and 2014, the team used first-round picks to get two swift backers, Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier, the rookie linebacker out of Ohio State.

"I really feel [speed] can be an asset," Shazier told City Paper on a break during training camp. "The coaches tell me to try to use it as much as possible. Sometimes you can't use it in every situation, but when you have the chance, use it. A lot of times, I try to shake guys up with my speed. I'm not the biggest guy."

The same is true of second-year player Jones, who spent much of the off-season getting stronger and developing an inside pass-rush, so that offenses cannot key on him going to the outside every time. Jones was drafted to be Harrison's heir apparent, and while his 2013 rookie season was underwhelming, he's putting in extra work this year to make sure 2014 is not a repeat. Long after practice, Jones lingered on the field with Porter, learning everything he could from the once-explosive pass-rusher.

click to enlarge Steelers defensive assistant Joey Porter
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Steelers defensive assistant Joey Porter

Linebackers appear to be putting more emphasis on getting to opposing quarterbacks, as they should be. The Steelers ranked 25th in the league in sacks last year (34) and 27th in sack percentage — a dramatic drop-off from their usual lofty rankings. The feeling among the players is that if they can get a good pass rush, it will ameliorate many other defensive woes.

But fourth-year defensive end Cam Heyward said you can't go to sleep on the running game, even with the rise of pass-dominant offenses.

"I think everybody likes to overlook the running game," Heyward explained. "I don't think it's a lost art, but we have to continue to work on it. Everybody's keying in on the run first, because you can get beat pretty quick if you don't stop the run."

Heyward might be a prophet: Two days after he uttered those words, the Steelers defense was gashed for a 73-yard touchdown run by Giants running back Rashad Jennings.

Sure, it was the first preseason game. Sure, those games generally mean very little (if anything) in the grand scheme of things. But when you combine that play with the ugly stats from last year — when Timmons and company spent much of their time chasing after the backs of wide-outs and running backs — it can be concerning. Big, dramatic plays became a regular occurrence in 2013, with the Steelers defense allowing 11 plays of 50 yards or more over the course of the season. By comparison, the defense allowed only three such plays in the 2011 and 2012 seasons combined.

Heyward said the Steelers have lofty goals: to return to the playoffs, of course, and to become the "No. 1 defense [in] rushing and passing. If we can be No. 1 in rushing, it puts us in a better situation for [stopping the] pass."

But if they expect to return to form by the Sept. 7 season opener ... they'll have to hurry.

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