The Answer Man

Woodward and Bernstein had Deep Throat. publisher Jim Wexell has Answer Man. He's the brightest football man in Pittsburgh. Here's how their most recent conversation went:

Q. Thanks for seeing me this week. I normally wait until the bye, but I'm taking off for a little vacation.

Answer Man. That's fine. You're good.

Q. Let's start with the big one: Are these Steelers a Super Bowl contender?

AM. (Chuckles) Better be. I mean, that's what it is around here. It's hard to make a lot of people understand how you can look at it like that. It seems harsh. But, really, that's pretty much the way it's viewed here. Kevin Colbert, after the 2010 season, losing in Dallas to the Packers, said "We were good enough for second, but second isn't good enough." That's pretty much how the football operations does its job around here. Plus, you've got yourself a legitimate franchise quarterback and not just someone who has been named that by some talking head on TV. So, yeah, you should be a contender. Every year in the league you can look legitimately before the season starts at about eight of them as Super Bowl contenders. Expecting to be one of those eight, to me, is not that ridiculous of an assumption.

Q. What has Todd Haley done for Ben Roethlisberger?

AM. I like the fact that he, Ben, is not being exposed as much. I remember 2008, the first third down of the season against the Houston Texans. Empty. Bang. Right shoulder. I mean, is that necessary? I don't think so. That's the thing, the exposure. Protecting the quarterback, to me, in this league, has to be something that is at the forefront of your to-do list, because it's too violent. And do you think that other teams in this league know what happens to the Steelers if Ben can't play? And if they're on your schedule?

Q. But if you have a franchise quarterback you've got to use him. Throw the ball.

AM. I don't see anything wrong with throwing it. I just think that in the process of doing it, you don't need to expose him. You can throw a pass without sending out every receiver except the five offensive linemen. I do remember looking in the rule book. That is legal.

Q. So if he's your franchise, you must protect your franchise.

AM. You might remember the Bradshaw line: "I'm a gunslinger, not a mailman." I don't want Ben delivering any mail, but I'd like him to be healthy enough to finish his route. I don't think those things are mutually exclusive. With Todd Haley, what we've seen so far is illustrating that. I won't say ‘prove' because ‘prove' is a word that means everyone's in agreement. There is probably always going to be a dissenting voice or two, but I think he has exhibited that this can work. It's not Woody Hayes's three-yards-and-a-cloud of dust, either.

Q. No. It's 2.6 and a cloud of dust. What is wrong with the running game?

AM. There are a few things. Mike Tomlin talked about them in some detail at his news conference this past week. There are some instances where if you watch it, there are holes there. As Dick Hoak used to yell, "Hit it up in there!" And there are other instances where guys are getting hit right after the handoff. You know, this always used to infuriate me, this ‘It's one thing here, one thing there.' That's a garbage answer, but it's kind of true. And I also think you need a couple of other things: It would be nice if this group of five offensive linemen got to play a few weeks together without there being multiple injuries; and get a little rhythm going. I think the running game is something that requires a little rhythm. What I like is they have been persistent, because I still think whether it's 2.1 or 4.2, if you're running it enough the defense has to respect it and play it. And if they're respecting it and playing it, they're not primarily concentrating on breaking your franchise quarterback into pieces. So it's effective even when it's not gaining yards. Now, it has to start gaining yards in order to be effective because then you're just one-dimensional. But, again, I like it. The fact that they're continuing to work on it, I think, is a good sign. Would they have run the ball as many times as they did in the fourth quarter against the Jets if this game were played last year? Based on their performance in the running game to that point? I don't think so, and that to me makes it a successful running game, because again you're forcing the defense to deal with it. If you run it twice, and say it only gains three yards, and it's third-and-seven, well that guy can convert third-and-seven. And if you run it again, you're forcing the defense to deal with it. For now, I'll take that.

Q. The great running backs see the hole over there, too. It doesn't have to be right in front of them.

AM. I don't know specifically what kind of philosophies that Haley has in terms of running the football, but all along, through the Bettis years, it was "You run it where it's called." The Steelers never ran to daylight. That was a Lombardi thing. That was not Chuck. If it was called where it was called, that's where you hit it because you trusted in it to be open when you got there and that was what the drilling and the practicing was for. Once the back starts freelancing, who knows where he's going to be? In Chuck's mind, dogs living with cats … chaos. (Laughs) So I don't know if Haley has a run-to-daylight philosophy, but that was never the way it was before. That's why you'd see Bettis run up an offensive lineman's back. "What's he doing!?" But that was the way they wanted you to run it because if it's open and you're hitting it at top speed you're through there, through the linebackers maybe, and all of the sudden a defensive back is looking at a 250-pound guy coming right at him. That was the philosophy about this team's running game over the years.

Q. Any thoughts in retrospect on the Mike Wallace contract matter?

AM. The way that it unfolded, I don't see how the Steelers could have done a long-term deal with a guy who, the last time they saw him, was in Denver losing a playoff game. So, to me it was just kind of, I don't know, two sides dancing around each other. It just didn't seem realistic that anything was going to get done long-term. Now, hey, there's nothing wrong with this, either. He's making $2.74 million, which is not minimum wage. And he gets to be a free agent. That's the way the system is. The Steelers then can sign him to a long-term deal, put the franchise tag on him – which I'm sure will be close to $10 million guaranteed money, which again isn't minimum wage – or he leaves and it's the open market. Hey, that's the system, and for him to cash in big he's going to have to have a big year, and he's on the way to that a little bit. In Baltimore, they've got a quarterback under that situation. That stuff happens in this league.

Q. What about the defense? Are you down on it?

AM. I'm not down. I'm concerned. I don't see where the takeaways are going to come from again, and I think you've got to have takeaways. If you don't have takeaways I think you have to play at too high of a level in terms of shutting opponents down. And based on the rules and the talent that other teams have offensively, I don't know that you can do that, just shut people down. What the Steelers did last year – leading the league in yards allowed and points allowed and passing yards allowed and all of that stuff with only 14 takeaways – that's hard to do. Every game, every drive without any cheap off-the-field thing, you've got to shut them down for three downs out of four. I don't know. The takeaway thing can be like an eraser.

Q. But that's not really something they can improve, is it?

AM. Why not?

Q. Well, what can you do? Hit them harder?

AM. I don't know. I just think there are players who either make plays on the ball or players who create situations that allow others to make plays on the ball. No Troy, no Harrison, there goes your double-edged pass rush with Harrison and Woodley and Troy is that guy who can make a quarterback pay for a poor decision. I'm not saying it's going to be as bad as last year. Eleven interceptions? The franchise worst is nine, and that was at a time when 300 passes in a season was ridiculous. Now, everybody's over 500, 550.

Q. So the solution is to just get Harrison and Polamalu back?

AM. I don't know that it's that simple, but not having them hurts.

Q. You're not worried about whether the scheme has become old and slow? Or that the talent's about to fall off the cliff?

AM. No. There are a lot of young guys. I hate to keep quoting Tomlin, but after the Denver game he was asked about Larry Foote, him stepping up and blah, blah, blah, and was he asserting is leadership? And he said, no, it was a just a function of him performing well. And Tomlin said he was less concerned about what Larry Foote was contributing and more concerned about what guys like Timmons and Woodley were not. You know, "old and slow" does not describe those two guys. "Old and slow" does not describe the young corners. "Old and slow" does not describe a lot of things, not even the defensive line anymore. Who's old and slow on the defensive line now? Casey? Well he's a nose tackle. You don't get any plays on the ball from your nose tackle. To me, that old-and-slow stuff is inaccurate, and some of these young guys … let's take LaMarr Woodley for example, and I'm not pinning this on him, but I've seen him go through long stretches where he's Defensive Player of the Year material. OK. Where's that? Timmons. He has done things that when you looked at him from an athletic perspective, amazing, difference-making. Where's that? Some of these guys have the ability. They are highly skilled. They are experienced now. They are all into their second contracts. Um, I want to see something. No, I don't think the talent has dropped off a cliff. I just think that some of these guys who were sidekicks, who were Robin, now have to become Batman. We'll see, but I definitely believe that the capability is there.

Q. And the scheme? This was devised to stop the old run-and-shoot and West Coast offenses.

AM. The guy next door here, Paul Chryst, the Pitt coach, one of the things he said was the scheme is never an excuse for your players not playing well. There's nothing wrong with this scheme. You just have to get off some blocks. The only thing the scheme can do is get you in a one-on-one matchup. ‘OK, Lawrence Timmons or Woodley or whomever, you're one-on-one with a back now to get to the quarterback. I can't do anything else for you. You've got to take it from there yourself now.' I'm not saying that that isn't happening enough, but if you look at the sacks statistics and stuff, so far – and it's only two games – but so far you're not seeing those kind of splash plays yet. That concerns me if that continues, but the Jets converted one third down and you allowed them over midfield once in an entire half. That's usually good enough.

Q. To Timmons credit, he did blow up the quarterback, who sucked soon thereafter.

AM. Yeah! Right. That's one in the plus side for Lawrence Timmons. But, again, that's one. A lot of these guys need to be making the kind of contributions that are obvious, not ‘well after watching the tape, boy, he played really good.' Nah. I want those things that everybody sees, the guy up in the fifth level sitting there with his girlfriend. ‘Wow!' Like the Harrison game in '07 when he had 3½ sacks, a pick, a forced fumble in the first half. ‘Hey! James Harrison played pretty good!' That's what I want to see, things like that.

Q. Going over a lot of negatives here, but you're still optimistic overall aren't you?

AM. Oh, it's a good team. When I talk about being concerned about takeaways, I'm looking at it in terms of the goal we talked about when we started this: contending for a Super Bowl championship. This is a good team. This is a good roster. It has depth, it has experience, it has a real franchise quarterback and he has weapons. It is well-coached. Again, there is nothing about the way the Pittsburgh Steelers do business from a football standpoint that is either obsolete or incorrect. Like Yogi Berra said, "You could look it up." It's just degrees. You were looking at a 12-4 team last year and people were complaining about 12-4 because they didn't win the division. I mean, change one play in the Ravens game and you're the No. 1 seed in the conference and we're not even talking about Denver. To quote a guy who used to work here, "It's a fine line." The thing about being here, too, though, is that – and Tomlin says this a lot – there were positive things but we're not interested in looking for positive things. It's a very bottom-line, get-it-done or don't-get-it-done place here. You either won the game or you didn't. Working on things after you win is OK, but talking about what you did right after you lose, that's not the way it happens here. You have to understand that everything I say is colored by that which comes down from the top here.

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