Answer Man

The man with all the answers about Steelers football talks about the state of the team at the bye week, and even predicts a surprising lineup change before next season.

Q: So, what's your take on the state of the team?

AM: I've said all along I like this team. I still do. It's not perfect and sometimes there are things that frustrate me, but I like this team. I think it can win a championship this year, so given those expectations you understand that there are things that can be frustrating. But, no, I like this team. I like where it is now, getting a little healthier, other people's teams are not getting healthier, and hey these things are marathons, so we'll see.

Q: Something can always improve. What do you think needs improved?

AM: I'm not breaking any new ground. They need more takeaways and it would be nicer if they were more efficient in the red zone. [Mike] Tomlin pretty much says that every week, but truly I think that those are really the two main things. I don't think you shut down teams anymore on defense. I just don't. I don't think that that's real; not the way the rules are. It's too easy to pitch and catch. Teams are going to move the football. I think defense now comes down to timely stops and takeaways. Get off the field on some third downs, make them kick field goals instead of score touchdowns, get some takeaways. That's what great defense is in the NFL these days.

Q: Are you OK with the playcalling these days?

AM: The offense is the quarterback now, it's not the coordinator. I'm not saying that to be critical, or mean, or pissy. I just think that's what it is. The offenses in New Orleans and Green Bay and all of those other places are the quarterbacks, too. He can change stuff, so the playcalling thing to me – it's more about the direction of it. When I get ticked off, and it's more about who it is: Throwing the ball to David Johnson. I mean, there's Weslye Saunders, or a receiver. Maybe the answer is you can't have him on your team if he can't catch.

Q: He can block.

AM: Can he?

Q: Can Saunders catch?

AM: He caught the one for the first down against the Bengals. Made a move after he caught it, too. It was the same David Johnson play.

Q: He dropped a touchdown, too.

AM: Seriously?

Q: Heath Miller catches it.

AM: (Flabbergasted)

Q: I'm just saying.

AM: This is the difference: (lines up three feet away) here, here's the ball, catch it. Making a delicate play in the back of the end zone at full speed is a little different. Heath can make that play, yes, but that's why he's Heath. There's only one of those.

Q: I gotcha. But when they throw to Johnson, that's the point in the game when you'd least expect it.

AM: (Flabbergasted again) I'm not interested in that [expletive]. I'm not.

Q: That's when you fool everyone.

AM: Yeah. Right. Again, he was wide open, the David Johnson thing. You just turn; throw it to him. He has to make that catch. Whether that was a tricky playcall or not, if he can't catch the ball in that situation he shouldn't be on the team. There's blame for that, but I don't put it on the playcalling.

Q: What's your take on the Hines Ward situation?

AM: I don't really know enough about the inner workings of it, but Hines's role is changing here, there's no question about that. This is almost like between the player and the coach and the very upper levels of management here, like Art [Rooney] and Kevin [Colbert] and Mike Tomlin and Hines. And that's it. I'll just to try and compare it to something that we're all familiar with: Jerome Bettis. Jerome was kind of shuffled into a lesser role as well. He stuck it out for quite a few years. I mean, in 2004 he wasn't even a starter when the season began. In 2005 he was pretty much third team after Fast Willie [Parker] emerged, but he remained a class act, ended up contributing in some critical ways in some critical situations and got to end it the best way that you can end it: holding the Lombardi Trophy on the victory platform announcing your retirement. Hines Ward is going to go down as one of the great Steelers of all time. I would hate to see it ruined or get nasty or anything right at the end, because Hines, how many years does he have left? I don't know. But, again, this guy can leave a mark on this team like Bettis did, like a lot of the other great players here did, and they all went through the same stuff. I like Hines. I do. I have a lot of respect for what he's contributed. Again, I just hope that this has all been kind of handled by the appropriate people, in terms of everybody being on the same page so we understand and there are no surprises because (chuckles, points down the hall to bigger offices) I betcha Hines might be talking about that right about now. So, I don't know. I would hope that it doesn't get ugly. I don't think it will, but these are just things that you have to be aware of and careful of.

Q: Has Jerricho Cotchery completely supplanted him in the middle of the two burners?

AM: There are still some things Hines Ward can provide this team, and provide this team on the field. Jerricho Cotchery at this particular moment in time might be physically more gifted than Hines Ward in even the same kind of usages in the middle of the field. But I don't know that what you know and having been there doesn't matter, and who knows. In late December and in January what Hines knows and how he is able to work his craft in these kinds of games, a lot of these kinds of games, for this team, isn't a valuable commodity. Hey, the other thing is let's have Cotchery healthy for a full month. At least Hines waited until he was 35 before he started missing wholesale games in a season. That's the only thing that I hope doesn't happen here. Remember Amos Zereoue. I wasted a [expletive] full year of my life with that gut decision. Maybe he is faster and quicker, but are you kidding me? Amos Zereoue instead of Jerome Bettis? How stupid does that sound right now? Seriously, how stupid does that sound right now?

Q: To get Hines to the platform, what will be the biggest obstacle?

AM: Green Bay.

Q: Let's start with an AFC obstacle? Who worries you?

AM: There isn't anybody. The New England thing's over, I believe, in terms of the whole mystique thing. OK, that's done. Especially this: Belichick – that was over Cowher. Tomlin's 2-2. He went up there, kicked the [expletive] out of them. OK, they didn't have Brady, but when he went up there and got his [expletive] kicked, he didn't have Troy or Woodley or Ryan Clark. I think that a lot of that is over now. Plus, their defense stinks, and you've got a quarterback that can handle it and has done it. I'm not saying that you go to New England and you're a double-digit favorite or anything, but I'm saying you don't have to say to yourself, ‘God, I hope somebody beats them.'

Q: Did you hear Belichick picked up Anthony Smith today?

AM: (Laughs) I like that. But that's the Patriots. The Jets can't help themselves. Their coach, he is torturing that team with the emotional roller coaster. He just is. He's too high and too low. He's saying ‘We're going to have a home playoff game' before they host New England, and then he's ‘Well it's doubtful we'll be able to win the division' after the game's over. You can't be saying that stuff out loud. Your players are looking at you and you're emotionally unstable. How can you lead them?

Q: Anyone else? The Chargers? The Raiders?

AM: No.

Q: Houston?

AM: Matt Schaub's out. Are they going to the Super Bowl with Matt Leinart? Are they that good everywhere else? I don't think so.

Q: If anyone can get by without a quarterback it's them. They have a great running game.

AM: Yeah. The only thing though is that even with 170 yards rushing against the Steelers they only scored 17 points.

Q: OK, what about Green Bay?

AM: I'll just read you one stat: 65 percent completion of passes longer than 20 yards. That's ridiculous. He was making some throws last night, and I realize it was against the Vikings but he has the only better group of pass-catchers than the Steelers. To me that was why you had to get better at corner. If you get to February again this year, it's Cortez Allen instead of Anthony Madison, and I like that a lot.

Q: You like Cortez, don't you?

AM: Yeah. It's too bad that that kid did not have OTAs, because he would be now more than just ‘cover that guy.' He can do that, but you could actually use him as a component because he would know what the hell is going on. As a blank slate, it's a good thing because he doesn't have a lot of physical bad habits, but as a blank slate he doesn't understand. Like Emmanuel Sanders playing at SMU understood a sophisticated passing attack, so he comes here, OK. The Citadel? But this kid, he's a player. I'll bet you he's a starter next year.

Q: Really? That's bold.

AM: Well, not really. There's somebody else who thinks that and who has a lot more authority to make it happen than me (laughs).

Q: I'd heard from one of the ex-players last spring that Tomlin was getting rid of Keenan Lewis. So, opinions do change.

AM: See, that was why Carnell Lake was hired, to work with those guys and work on their craft with them. It was the end of the line for Keenan. It was a last chance, but, no, he wasn't toast before camp.

Q: He's doing well.

AM: Yeah. He's competent.

Q: Are he and William Gay competent enough to beat the Packers?

AM: I think McFadden, from what we saw, was replaced for performance issues. Gay and Keenan Lewis aren't going to the Pro Bowl but I think they are an upgrade over what you had last year, and Cortez Allen is an upgrade over Anthony Madison. And Curtis Brown, watch him on special teams. He's feisty. He's little, or slight, but if he fills out a little he's got the grittiness. You almost have to be a desperate person to play there because you have to have virtually no conscience. If you do, every little mistake you make will get to you. You have to put it away quickly and sometimes the nastiness and the feistiness and all of that, that's what you're looking for at that position. Battle and scrap and handfight and chase and compete, and when the ball comes it's all elbows. Those receivers will give it to you to create separation. I'm sure those Green Bay receivers know a little bit about that, too. When B.A. [Bruce Arians] was talking about Cotchery being savvy in dirtier areas, that's what he's talking about. So your corners have to be that, only on the other side of the ball. I just like those two kids. They're going to be what the receivers were, only a different class. Tomlin has a little bit of history of that. He did linebackers once. He did receivers once. He did corners once. Wouldn't mind him doing a couple of tackles once. But, they did get one last year, and it's hard to get multiple tackles. I like Gilbert. I think he can play. Heyward can play. So, yeah, I like this team.

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