Answer Man

The smartest football man in Western Pennsylvania tackles Jim Wexell's toughest questions about the Pittsburgh Steelers as the playoffs are set to begin.

Q: OK, so what's your outlook? What are you thinking about this team and its chances?

A: I like this team. I'm not going to try to contend that it's perfect. I don't even know if it's as good as '08 in some areas, but I think that it's representative of what the league is now in that there are no perfect teams. You've got a quarterback who's playing really well, a coach who's really in tune with the kind of team this is, and the playmakers on defense are making plays. We'll see how it turns out.

Q: In what area is this team not as good as the 2008 team?

A: I don't think the defense is as good. I think it's plenty good enough. I mean, that defense to me was one of the best defenses over the course of an entire season in a while.

Q: The defensive passing numbers on this team have drastically improved the last seven games. Was that a product of poor opposition? Or is there something to it?

A: I don't know, but we're going to find out real soon. I thought they did pretty well against Drew Brees. Brady was a disaster. Some other quarterbacks have done some decent things, but the Steelers' defense has made some plays. Really, that's what the league is now, and maybe I have to adjust my own expectations to that because there really isn't ‘shutting people down' anymore. But I like this running game better. I like the quarterback better. The offensive line? You're playing without the two tackles you figured you were going to start with, but your center is so much better. The receivers are not as experienced. The '08 receivers, you could go deeper on the depth chart before you got to the inexperience. You had Hines, Tone and Nate. This year, the third guy is a rookie. Your second guy – or first, depending on how you want to look at Wallace – is going into his first playoffs. I'm not saying he can't handle it. I'm just talking about – as the coach says – been-there-done-that guys.

Q: I asked Mike Wallace today about that and he said he can handle it.

A: Well, then, whew! Boy, I'll sleep good tonight.

Q: Isn't this basically the same team? And isn't the real difference the fact that the 2008 team didn't have to contend with Tom Brady?

A: There is no arguing what New England with Brady has done to this team, going back to 2004 and the game they stole with the cinematography. But I don't know. My recollection of what New England is doing right now to the opposition, and how they're doing it, and what they did to the Steelers in the regular season, doesn't feel a whole lot different to me than '05 in Indianapolis. I mean, they had clinched at 12-0 or 13-0 and Peyton Manning was unbeatable, if I recall. So I think it's going to be interesting. I hope it goes this way, that we're given no chance. I hope New England beats someone by 50, and let's go up there and let's see, because the kind of people who are in this locker room respond well to the disrespect thing. These guys have won a lot of games together. They've won championships together. They genuinely seem to care for each other. So going into a New England game, it wouldn't surprise me at all if the Steelers went up there and won.

But to me, these playoffs are set up for Ben Roethlisberger to show everybody, if he can, that it's not Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and then everybody else. Because if the seedings hold, Ben gets to go head-to-head with Peyton Manning, and then he can go head-to-head with Tom Brady. And if the Steelers are going to win either one of those games, it ain't going to be 13-10. I think it's going to take, certainly in New England, 30 points minimum. And I'd like to see them scored at a time when the game's still very much in doubt. The one time Tom Brady had to play from behind against the Steelers, he got his butt whupped pretty good – Halloween Day 2004. It's been awfully comfortable ever since then for him. That kind of comfort cannot happen. Again, let's go back to '05 in Indy: 14-0. OK, Peyton, what do you got? Joey Porter was in his face an awful lot after that. So the games are going to have to unfold in a certain way. I think the offense is going to have to play much better than it did in the first meeting when the 26 points was cosmetic. I've got a lot of respect for Dick LeBeau and I've got a lot of respect for the pride that defensive unit has. I don't think that that would happen again. Maybe I'm just hoping, but that would be my sense.

But to go up there, I would imagine the Steelers would be given no chance by anyone. None. And historically this group has done well in that scenario, so that's kind of what I'm hoping for again.

Q: Good point about Roethlisberger and LeBeau being in position to prove themselves.

A: It's not just them. If the Steelers go up there and beat them, and then go on and win the next game, who's the team of the decade? I really believe that the Patriots think they're smarter than everyone else, and I really would like to know the story behind the videos, because I don't believe for a minute that there was only one. And the only other thing that I will always say to all of the pundits and all of the coaches and all of the players who say it really wouldn't help you that much is this: Why did they keep doing it for years and years and years? To me, the law-and-order commissioner, he blew that one. He can fine Brandon Meriweather and those poor players all he wants, but he had what I believe was some pretty sound evidence of cheating in a situation where the teams had received a letter from him a couple of months before, specifically reiterating that that was not allowed, and they did it anyway.

Q: The players I've talked to believe the illegal taping of signs played a big factor in the games.

A: Heh. Talk to Joey Porter. To this day he's still very upset about it. You know, it seemed to me early in that game Brady knew exactly when to go deep. A couple of those Deion Branch passes, if those are incomplete, I don't know what ends up happening. But, hey, Ben was a rookie quarterback. That interception he threw Rodney Harrison, that was horrendous. I mean, that's what you get for throwing the ball to Jerame Tuman.

Q: OK, to pull you out of this, what do you think of the direction of the offense?

A: I think there's been some movement made to attempt to run the ball more and more effectively. It's still not the kind of running game that I personally would like to see, so, I don't know. I don't think I really know enough about it to be too specific. Still, I think it could be better. This drafting of Pouncey to me really has flipped me from one side of the issue to the other, and that issue is this: I believe there are two ways to build an offensive line – the way the Steelers did it under Cowher with all high picks and then the way the Patriots and the Colts have done it by just putting guys together and making it into a unit. Based on the way Ben plays as opposed to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, he's not a quick-game quarterback. It's not 1-2-3 throw the ball. I mean, Ryan Diem couldn't play tackle for any team but Indianapolis because he's so bad. But with Manning, the ball's out of his hands so fast you never get an opportunity to exploit him. Ben is not that way. Ben has done enough for me that I'm going to take him the way he is and try to work the other components around him, instead of trying to make him play the way that the rest of the guys warrant.

Q: I was just talking to Ben about how quickly he's been throwing lately.

A: OK, well, if it happens that's great. We'll see. I mean, there are instances we have seen recently of him doing this, but I don't know if it's really the start of a change or if these are just instances. That would be great. But getting back to my point about Pouncey and how quickly he's established himself as the best lineman on this team, it makes me start to think that's the way to go. You don't have to have five No. 1 picks, but if you get maybe two or three of them, you create a different talent level on the front five. With this head coach, who I like a lot, I think you can become a dominant up-front unit, and then your offense maybe could run the ball without a fullback. That was always Russ Grimm's belief: If you want to run one-back, you'd better have the hogs up front. He was one of them, and they did that in Washington.

Q: If you watched Stanford the other night, you saw young, cutting-edge coaches winning with a full-time fullback.

A: And I believe in that. But what I'm saying is I don't know if it's the offense that's bad or whether it's the personnel. The one problem that I have is that we haven't had the personnel for years now. I want to see the coach adjust. I don't want to hear ‘Well, if these guys were better this would work.' Well, yeah. If these guys were really any good I could be the coach and we'd win. This to me is very much a problem with offensive coordinators throughout this league. They want to be right. They believe that they're right. I don't really care. I want to win and I think that you need to be able to say, ‘Jonathan Scott can't get that backside block on the 2-yard line out of the shotgun when you want to run that pike play.' Don't call it there. That's what I need to see.

I don't know what's going to happen, but I think you can make these complaints about every offensive coordinator who has ever lived and pick out certain things that you don't like. But if you win another Super Bowl, what I like or don't like, I mean, how do you fire a guy?

Q: Maybe someone hires him away.

A: But, again, I don't know. I can honestly say I don't like a lot of things about it, but it has been more than marginally successful. We'll see.

Q: One last thing: On the CBA negotiations and the dealing with potential free agents right after the season, how do you see the plan coming together? Can this team have a plan?

A: No. In March, it's over. They're going to have the draft, but there'll be no free agency. I believe that has a lot to do with why we're seeing a lot of these coaches being retained. Let's pretend I fire my coach. He's gone. I bring in a new guy and he hires assistants and that takes until mid to late February. OK, you have no players starting in March when the league calendar begins. What if it's not settled until August 1? Hopefully it would be settled before then, but August 1 is not that ridiculous. But they would still start the season, I believe, on schedule. So you've got a new coach, all new assistants, and a new playbook as thick as the Manhattan phonebook, and these guys get it August 1 and you're going to start playing September 9? How's that going to work? I mean, you've got no chance. No chance.

Q: So there'd be a mad scramble for all of the free agents in a week or so?

A: You can't sign anybody until you know what the rules are. Why would you, as management, give, say, LaMarr Woodley, money? That doesn't create any sense of urgency for them to do a deal. So, yeah, I can't believe there would be any signings or free agency until a CBA deal is done. That's when the players begin complaining about the lack of a window and why it should get settled. And that's why I think so many owners are re-signing their people instead of blowing it up and starting over. Even the two teams that fired guys, they're keeping their interim coaches. That's the way owners are looking at this.

Q: I understand you won't even be able to sign college players after the draft. Is that right?

A: Yes. You would be paying them. And as for the draft, who knows if there'll be a rookie wage scale? And is it for this draft or next draft? You may draft these guys, but you won't be able to do anything because no one knows what the rules are.

Q: So what you're saying is that now's the time to win and then you can take a nice, long victory lap, right?

A: Well put.


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