The Answer Man

It's time for the one, the only Answer Man. He talks with Jim Wexell today about the Steelers' cuts, contract talks, strengths, weaknesses, and offensive and defensive changes before Sunday's season opener against the Ravens.


Q: Just to get some old business out of the way before moving on to this coming season, Tony Hills had been kind of surprising to me—

A: Me, too.

Q: Why did he get cut?

A: I don't know what happened. I really don't. Maybe there was just a little bit of impatience with Tony Hills, and they just ran out of patience.

Q: I thought they were happy with themselves for making the move.

A: But he didn't play well at all against the Falcons. He showed some last summer, remember? Then he showed some this summer. He got thrown in at right guard against Washington and he did OK. They were thinking, ‘Hey, maybe this is his spot.' Then they started him against the Eagles and they had the injuries at left tackle. He didn't get a full look so they gave him another shot the next week, and he didn't do well. If you remember, there was no movement for the running game against the Falcons. They liked [Doug] Legursky. I really think what it is is they think Marcus Gilbert can be the swing tackle this year. He has come that far that quickly. We'll see if they're right, but I think it's more of a reflection maybe of what Marcus Gilbert is. And Tony Hills? He had three years.

Q: I'm more comfortable with Trai Essex as the swing tackle.

A: The thing with Essex is he can snap. Essex's value as a snapper might be even more than it is at any other position because it gives you a third guy who can snap. Then, they believe, that you can start Legursky. They did not want to have their only centers already starting somewhere on the line. When Essex showed he can do that, it freed up Legursky.

Q: And doomed Hills. Got it. Now, what are your thoughts about Troy Polamalu being a few days away from entering the final season of his contract?

A: I might be less worried about Troy than I was about Ike [Taylor] and I wasn't worried about Ike at all. There's no way – there's no way – that this team and that guy don't get something done. No way. I just cannot imagine a realistic scenario in which it turns bitter and they're tagging him and all that, just crap, and he becomes Walter Jones. Remember Walter Jones in Seattle?

Q: But you can only do it two consecutive years now.

A: OK. Still.

Q: What if his agent, who's a really good agent, what if he wants to get Troy a market-driven, Player-of-the-Year type contract because Troy wants to feed the world or something like that?

A: Well, I mean, what if Ike's agent wanted $100 million?

Q: Ike doesn't want to feed the world.

A: Well I don't know if Troy does, either.

Q: We don't know that. But it's possible that this type of person could want a lot of money to do something grandiose, isn't it?

A: OK, well, I don't think Theodora wants to feed the world. I mean, there's realistic and there's not. Troy also has been a very highly paid player for his last contract, too, in terms of where he stands among league-wide safeties. It's not like this is a situation like [LaMarr] Woodley, where he hasn't cashed any big checks yet. I really think the Steelers value Troy, and only part of it is on the field. He's unique.

Q: Hardcore football fans don't care about his community presence.

A: Who?

Q: Hardcore football fans.

A: Well, they're not in that negotiating room. Look, the kind of guy he is, a genuinely good guy, he's not going to be a jerk in negotiations. This team and the way they look at guys like him, both as players and as people, nobody's ever left here like that. Nobody. Certainly not in the post-Heinz Field era, which to me marked a new era of Steelers football. They suddenly had a building to generate the kind of revenue that every other team has. That was what Dan Rooney said when he wanted the stadium built: We need this to compete in this NFL. I think he's lived up to his side of the bargain.

Q: Agreed. Look at what they've done this year.

A: Again, they may run out of time because it's like days now until it's over and the regular season starts, but I do remember them extending one of the guys the day before the season started. I think they're going to run out of time in this particular case.

Q: Are they trying to get it done this week?

A: I don't know. But I will say that I've never heard it said out loud that ‘No, we're not doing this until next year.'

Q: Do you see any roster shuffling to come this week?

A: I don't know the league that well. I do know that this coach and this GM – gotta call him GM now, brutha – are always looking, getting their lists ready.

Q: Do you have a sense of the weak positions?

A: It doesn't matter. This coach would've started Tony Hills. It doesn't matter. It's not about fortifying weak spots as much as if they think somebody out there is better than anyone on the 53, then they make that move.

Q: What do you see as this team's biggest problem?

A: I think this roster is probably – and I'm not really sure of Green Bay's – but I would argue that this roster is as solid from top to bottom as any in the league. We could talk about their problems, but look at this mess (pulls out Baltimore Ravens roster). Andre Gurode? Bryant McKinnie? I mean, did you hear what Jon Gruden said about him? They were doing a Ravens game and I think it was [Ron] Jaworski who said they added McKinnie and that he saw him running before the game. Gruden said, ‘Yeah, he's going to have to do a lot of running before he's ready to play.' So this is the kind of thing that they're doing. Is Jonathan Scott a little less than you would like at left tackle? Probably. But, damn, he's better than what they have.

Q: What about tweaking the bottom of the roster? What needs help?

A: Until those guys show me they can play, it's corner. That to me was what hurt ya' last year. When B-Mac [Bryant McFadden] got injured those last couple of playoff games, because of the 45-man game-day roster, you had to have Anthony Madison up, OK? So he ends up playing corner. Well, that's a problem against Aaron Rodgers. So, whoever that guy is this year, he needs to be better than that. If they're not, you've got the same kinds of problems.

Q: They weren't and aren't going to cut Cortez Allen. I thought he looked great.

A: I'll tell you what, though. I don't think he would've made the team if he didn't get on the field that last game.

Q: Really?

A: That's part of it in this league. [Mike] Tomlin said this about Donovan Warren: His primary ability right now is his availability. Hey, you get some rookie – and I'm not saying he was shirking his duties, but the kid had not been on the field for even five practices and didn't play in three preseason games – but you get some rookie who might not understand playing at less than 100 percent. Are you going to cut other people? How's a coach going to go in there and look those guys in the eye and tell them how important it is to fight through injuries and get yourself on the practice field when you put a kid – a kid, a fourth-round pick with no track record – on the team? Hey, it's a moot point now because the kid played.

Q: Many fans are upset that the team didn't replace William Gay. What's your opinion of him?

A: He's a serviceable guy for what his role is. You know, I don't think people understand how easy it is to play pitch and catch in the NFL anymore. Whoever that guy is in the slot, he's covering those little quick receivers. The quarterback's in the shotgun and I don't think that even if no one was blocking James Harrison he could get there in time. The ball's out his hand that fast. I don't know what people think you can do. I mean, third-and-4, you can't hold, you can't hit him to knock the ball out because he's defenseless, I-I-I-I-I … you tackle him and hope you get them in third-and-13 sometime. You know, the Steelers' defense last year sucked so bad. I mean, it was really bad. It was first in the league in points allowed, tied for third in third-down conversions, second or third in fewest touchdown passes allowed. I mean, we talk about the offense and what a phony thing yardage gained is; why doesn't that go for the defense? We bitch about B.A. [Bruce Arians]'s offense moving great between the 20s but his red-zone percentage is [fecal matter]. Well, OK, if the defense is forcing other offenses into that situation, kicking field goals, that's the way you've got to play in this league and you've got to hope one of your playmakers makes a play in the end. The '76 Steelers, man, that stuff's over. That stuff's over. You're not going to line up and dominate a team anymore.

Q: That's quite sad.

A: OK, but you're not allowed to do too many things and it's quick-rhythm passing. If the quarterback is not completely slappy, he's going to compete 6 out of 10.

Q: Those days of Dick LeBeau feasting on erratic quarterbacks are gone.

A: There are fewer of them.

Q: They've been playing this kind of football since high school now.

A: Right. Colt McCoy's been running this [fecal matter] for how long now? I mean, that rhythm, off-your-back-foot, ball comes out (spits). And you can't hit those guys either.

Q: So you've got to outscore them.

A: Pretty much. But the way you play defense has to be different. You need stops at certain critical moments. You need some takeaways and, as Tomlin calls them, splash plays. Sunday against the Ravens, [Joe] Flacco's going to hit some of those to Anquan Boldin. (laughs) Completed 14 passes to Roddy White last year in the opener and what for? Three field goals? And a loss!

Q: Are we looking at a total change with this offense and its improving passing capabilities?

A: To some degree. But the head coach is a defensive coordinator. He understands you've got to help the defense by possessing the football. And you can possess the football with passing as well. Let me just say this: That's an Andy Reid thing – make the quarterback make every play. How's it worked for him? You can't do that to anyone. You can't make Ben [Roethlisberger], Donovan McNabb, whoever it is, you can't make him convert every third down the entire year. So you've got to be able to run the ball a little bit. Again, if they weren't interested in running the ball, Legursky wouldn't be the right guard.

Q: You could go down the entire line that way.

A: Yeah. But, the thing is, yes, you're very explosive, and on those days when you can't run the ball – like the Atlanta preseason game – you've got a guy and receivers who can put it in the end zone from 77 yards. You can make those kinds of plays. It doesn't have to be four yards at a clip all the way down the field, and then you're afraid to throw it in the end zone because the quarterback might throw a pick. Those days are over, too. B.A. talks about a point per minute-of-possession. I think that's an excellent goal. And I'm not being sarcastic. That's the kind of thing you need. You need to be efficient offensively. I don't think this is The Greatest Show on Turf, or anything like that. I don't think they want to run it that way.

Q: So they're not going to borrow from the High-Octanes next door?

A: (Laughs). (Laughs again.)

Q: So, how do you see this season? Obviously you're optimistic.

A: Who knows. But I like this team, as I said. I think I could argue that it's the most balanced roster in the league. I mean, let's look at quarterback. Seriously, I mean, Tyrod Taylor? He's the Ravens' backup. Steve Hoyer or Brian Hoyer or whatever in New England? And right now we're going to get to see what kind of roster they have in Indianapolis. So, again, there are things that could be better, and there are a lot of areas that would be nice if they were better, but Tomlin's approach to this, to me, is genius: We don't have to be better than anybody but who we play. You can paralyze yourself with the task at hand if you look at what you didn't get done this year: ‘Oh, my God, we didn't have OTAs. We didn't have teaching sessions. Where are we compared to last year?' You can kill yourself worrying about that. You've only got to be better than the Ravens on Sunday, whatever they are. So, yeah, I like this team. I don't think there's a game on the schedule that I would say they can't win. I think they could lose a lot, too, if they don't take care of their business. But, I don't know, maybe this is the team that breaks that Super Bowl loser's jinx.

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