By Pete Prisco, CBS Sports Senior Writer
OAKLAND (CBS Sports) — One simple comment brought a wide grin to Hue Jackson’s face.
“You guys have a ton of speed out there,” he was told.
“You know it,” Jackson said. “It’s sure nice to have that on our side.”
Jackson, the first-year Oakland Raiders coach, takes over a team loaded with speed. Several general managers and coaches privately raved about the Raiders’ offensive speed last season during conversations, fearful of what it could do to make their teams look slow by comparison.
The Raiders have a game-changing back (Darren McFadden) and a fleet group of receivers that you half expect to see with a baton in their hands.
“It’s a big reason why I am so excited to get this thing going,” Jackson said.
Speed has always been a big part of the NFL game. But the recent trend toward spread offenses has made it even more so. Without a pure deep threat on offense, it’s easy to take away a passing game, especially for teams that have the corners to match up.
That’s why heading into the April draft, you will see even more urgency by teams to find cover corners and to find the speed to beat them.
The Green Bay Packers won a Super Bowl with a spread passing game and with a defense that featured corners capable of playing man coverage. In a copycat league, the rest of the NFL will be trying to do the same.
“The Packers don’t have burners outside in their passing game,” one NFC scout said. “But they spread them out, and they are fast enough to make plays down the field. Greg Jennings is one of the top guys in the league. I don’t know what he runs in terms of the 40, but he plays fast. That’s the key. Playing fast.”
For most of last season, all we heard was how the New England Patriots didn’t miss Randy Moss and his big-play ability. They rolled to an AFC East title. Tom Brady put up big numbers to win the MVP award. They didn’t need speed on the outside, right?
Then the playoffs came. Without a real deep threat, the New York Jets limited Brady and his passing attack in 28-21 victory. The longest pass play to a receiver was 16 yards. The two starting receivers averaged 8.1 and 11.6 yards per catch.
The myth was debunked: Even with the greatest passers, you can’t compensate for a lack of speed outside — especially against teams with good corners.
The Patriots got the best of the Jets defense during the regular season, but that was with quick throws inside. This time, the Jets took that away and there was no deep threat to overcome it. Patriots fans will say Brandon Tate is their speed threat, but until that speed becomes more productive what’s the point of having it?
“You have to scare corners down the field,” one AFC general manager said. “That means putting up big plays. Just because you can run doesn’t make the defenses play differently. The only way speed scares is if it picks up big chunks of yards.”
New England was not alone in being a playoff team to have a lack of speed in the passing game showed up in the postseason. The Baltimore Ravens clearly need help in that department.
In two playoff games, their starting receivers, including a presumed No. 1 in Anquan Boldin, were held to seven catches for 73 yards. I was in the press box to watch the Kansas City Chiefs corners play press-man coverage all day to limit Boldin and Derek Mason in the wild-card round. And then the Steelers were even better in shutting them down, as those two combined to catch one pass for minus-2 yards.
That led to questions about quarterback Joe Flacco holding the ball too long. But when you don’t have speed that’s getting open, that’s what happens.
“We always want to get better,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Obviously, a ‘speed receiver.’ I would like to have just good receivers. To me, what their 40 times is important, but do they play fast? Are they in and out of breaks quickly? Can they make plays downfield? We’ve got some guys that can do that, but, yeah, we’re looking to get better.”
Atlanta, which entered the playoffs as the top seed in the NFC, was another team undone by its lack of speed. Roddy White is a top-notch receiver, but he isn’t a burner. Michael Jenkins has speed, but doesn’t play to it.
In the Falcons’ 48-21 loss to the Packers in the divisional round, that lack of deep speed showed up. Matt Ryan’s longest pass play was 22 yards and White’s longest was 12.
The Green Bay corners, Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson, had a big night in shutting them down.
The 2010 playoffs taught us this is a speed and cover game now more than ever.
“I think so,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “I think athleticism, speed and urgency is big. This is a matchup league. If you can’t match up and run tit for tat with someone or a team, you will be left in the dust.”
No wonder Hue Jackson was smiling.
Speed kills — more than ever.
(© 2011 CBS Interactive. All rights reserved.)