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Smartest football man in Pittsburgh tackles all of the questions

An epic 3,500-word interview delivered to your phone just in time for Thanksgiving.

Q: The fans and media seem kind of giddy right now. You're 6-4, beat the Browns, week off, quarterback's getting healthy. Do you share that optimism? That giddiness?

Answer Man: Yeahhh, I don't know about that. Giddy? I think this team is pretty stretched in terms of how many more front-line players it can lose. Watching games Sunday, and then I think it was on Football Night in America, they had clips from post-game and the whiny Harbaugh was telling his team about all the injuries they've sustained and now they're going to be without their quarterback. You know, I don't know that any team's lost two first-team All-Pros this season, both of them on offense. But outside of that, yeah, I kind of like where this team is. I know it's not necessarily the popular approach to take, but I think the coach has done a helluva job in instilling that whole "Next-Man-Up" BS.

Q: It's apparently not BS.

AM: Right. It's real down there and that's all that really matters. Belief is a powerful thing, It can make its own reality. So, yeah, I feel pretty good about this. Again, as long as the health stands up. You're going to have injuries, but no more, no more All-Pros on IR. If you can swing that, because, really, who are you afraid of playing?

Q: No one, really.

AM: The other thing is it seems to be breaking right. No Andrew Luck. Maybe no Peyton Manning. No Flacco and Forsett when you go play the Ravens. Instead of worrying about how we're going to get by without Le'Veon and Martavis with Mike Vick being the quarterback, maybe it's now switching around and maybe we don't see Luck and we see Hasselbeck, and maybe when we play the Ravens it's going to be Matt Schaub and whoever that running back was they had to use Sunday against the Rams. Who knows? Maybe it does all even out in the end.

Q: It seems to have gone that way in the big years here, hasn't it?

AM: There's no question in my mind that luck is a huge, significant factor, and who knows maybe it's working out.

Q: What has surprised you the most this season?

AM: I didn't believe all along that this team was going to be as bad as the doomsayers believed back before training camp and preseason. But, I never thought the defense was going to be this good this quick. I say good because I believe that. That yardage-allowed measuring stick of how they rank defenses in the NFL, you would really think that the people involved in the sport would know better, because there are few things more meaningless to me than yards gained or yards allowed in determining the outcomes of games and who gets the trophy at the end. But that is the standard that they use. This defense gives up yards but the takeaways are up, the sacks are up and the points are down. To me that's good defense.

Q: One spot that still makes people nervous is cornerback. We know Will Gay can play and Ross Cockrell seems like a real find. The Brandon Boykin and Antwon Blake situation still seems to be a question. Aren't people still complaining about that?

AM: Probably. You know, this guy -- and I'm talking about the head coach -- he impressed me early on as being a guy who really makes moves based on his available options. There's that Chris Rock thing about a married man's ability to stay faithful to his wife is directly related to his options. I think in coaching, you can't do things based on "Get him outta there." Who do I have to play instead? Or, he's not that bad but he's keeping this guy who's showing me more off the field. That was Boykin's problem. I mean, when he was brought here, it was all there for him. He was not impressive. And Blake? I mean, he drives fans crazy. I know that. Sometimes me too. But he's a tough guy. He's physical. He makes plays. "Ahhh, but he gives up a cushion." And then he returns one 70 yards against San Diego in a game you had to win, and he gives it to you. Picks off one in the end zone against the Bengals. And there's Cockrell. Boykin? He didn't stand out and these other guys, while they're playing every now and then they're doing this kind of stuff and that's good enough. They're just not going to replace a guy on the hope -- on the hope -- on the hope that this other guy's better. And what's really hurting him, I think, is Gay's so good as an inside slot guy, because that's who he's really competing with. He's not physical enough to play outside cornerback on this team. He's just not. Maybe that made it an iffy trade at the time, I don't know. I liked the trade when it was made. I'll be honest. Everyone now who was saying it was a bad trade, I didn't hear that back in August so I don't want to hear it now. But that's why he's not playing. And if Boykin was a bad move, you've got to give them credit for the Cockrell move, right? Boykin was early in August. We weren't at camp very long yet. I just think they were trying whatever they could try, throw as many bodies at it as you can and let them figure it out. It's OK. I think you can win with this defense, with this secondary, and, really, that's all that it's about.

Q: Do you ever wonder how they got Cockrell? How Doug Whaley let him go in the first round of cuts?

AM: I have no idea. I don't know enough about Buffalo's team. Who knows, maybe Rex doesn't like the kind of player that he is. I do know this though: There was an awareness, if I can use that word, an awareness (that) whenever there's a coaching change you watch that team's waiver wire because what this guy likes, that guy doesn't. Sometimes you can get some deals, some bargains, that way. But I don't know enough about Buffalo to give you a decent answer on that.

Q: The other surprise I thought you might touch on is how well the running game is doing without two key offensive linemen. Any insight on why that's happened? Is it all Mike Munchak? Or are these replacements that good?

AM: I think that what you have generally is a better group, and so you can absorb maybe an injury better. Gilbert is playing very well and that's a big help. I think DeCastro is showing more and more why he was a first-round pick and why he came out in his year viewed as the top prospect at his position. But I would imagine that Munchak has to be a factor. Sometimes it's a detriment when a coach was a great player because he just can't understand why a player can't do something that he himself did every day. But other times, his understanding can be because he got it when he was a player he can get it as a coach. I remember back in the Russ Grimm days. Before he came here he was with the Redskins and they drafted Chris Samuels. I think he was the second pick the year they drafted LaVar Arrington first maybe. But the day they made that pick, he was told "This guy will start when the seasons opens." OK, so you understand you're not developing him, you're getting him ready to play. There's a difference. And so I think Munchak has that same understanding of "OK, I'm not going to try to work on his footwork" -- maybe, and I'm just plucking things out of the sky here -- "I need him to be able to execute on game day." And sometimes that approach can work in these kinds of situations. That could be part of it, too. I think Villanueva's a find, really, and I can't really express how superior I believe he must be with what Tomlin calls the above-the-neck game. I mean, two tours in Afghanistan. What? Are you going to intimidate him? Is he going to be afraid? I mean, really? Plus, the whole do-what-you-re-told part of being on a team, all of that stuff. It was life or death if he made missteps in any of those areas, so you put that together with some pretty unique skills -- he's a big guy who played receiver, so good hands, good feet, decent athlete -- and you put I-don't-know-how-many pounds on him since then, and he has to be smart enough to get the game plan, so it's not that much of a stretch to believe it can happen. You have a guy like Munchak teaching him how to play, and he's going to listen. I'm not saying that it was easy with this guy but he certainly has a lot of the ingredients that are conducive to being someone you could turn into a player. And it's important to him to be a football player.

Q: I realize so much can happen down the stretch here, but what do you make of Kelvin Beachum's future here?

AM: It's not time to make that decision yet. It's the same thing with the kicker. I mean if this kicker is 13-for-14 in the playoffs and we win the Super Bowl, that's a whole different factor than if in the first playoff game he's 2-for-4 and we lose.

Q: They have the line that's working, they have a running back and they have a fullback, a good fullback. Do you have a problem with the offense's trouble inside the 5-yard line?

AM: I've never been a big fan of jumbo packages.

Q: No? You haven't been a fan of the power game?

AM: You can run power but I'm running power with three receivers, because I've seen it happen to us for years. Years. "Casey Hampton, get him off the field." Teams would put another receiver in there and we'd take him off and they would run the ball. And with the quarterback in there, I don't have a big problem with what they're doing. This guy, Ben, is in position, I believe, to make history. He can stamp himself -- and all of this comes within the context of this team winning -- but he can pass Aaron Rodgers, he can pass Peyton Manning, he can put himself with Brady because, let's face it, if this team is going to get to San Francisco, and win there, he's going to have to be great and he's going to have to be great every (expletive) week. And if he is, everybody knows he's the reason. And there it is. Not that he's not going to end up with a bust in Canton, but they could just start making it right then. Beyond that, I think that would put him above a lot of the people that are now in the conversation as being above him.

Q: Ben's driven. He understands that, don't you think?

AM: I've got to believe he does. Sometimes I just don't know how -- I won't say media savvy because that's not what I mean, but the hype machine, the talking heads and the worldwide leader and all those people on the NFL Network and all that stuff -- when they talk about who are the top five quarterbacks, sometimes he doesn't even make the list. I believe that if we win this year, he wouldn't be lower than two when that list comes out of everybody's mouth, even from guys who never played as good as they like to talk.

Q: Even Landry Jones is looking like a legitimate backup quarterback, so we in the media are really giddy. This is really an optimistic time, isn't it?

AM: Throughout the preseason I don't think we knew whether this guy deserved to be on an NFL roster. It was a let's-find-out kind of thing. I think now that has been answered. And let me say this: I don't know what other people thought or expected when that pick was made but it was very clear to me from the beginning that this was his top end, being Ben's backup. All of that "this is Ben's replacement" stuff, those were either ignorant people, uninformed people, whatever, but that wasn't ever what was going on in here. But Landry is turning out to be not a bad fourth-round pick if he is your No. 2, which I can't see how he's not when Gradkowski comes back. I do believe there is a perception that Gradkowski is getting to the point where Leftwich and Batch and those guys were where you're just too old, where anytime you get hit you get hurt. You just can't have that as a backup because you're always stuck looking for someone. I think Landry is that, and, if he is that, not a bad fourth-round pick with the understanding that is what you were looking for there. Trying to buy those guys is a lot more expensive and costs you more on the cap than developing your own. And the other thing is, as we saw with Vick, it's hard to come in with all new personnel with the limited amount of snaps you get and be effective. What did he have? A week of practice? With all of that (stuff) that goes on in March and April that nobody wants to pay attention to, if you groom your own that guy can have two or three years of that. Shaq Phillips, Eli Rogers, when they're looking for somebody to throw them the ball, this is the guy who's out there doing it, and they're running your routes and the offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach is in your ear, so when you need him to play he has a better chance to succeed.

Q: Before I get into my wrap-up question, do you have any sense of whether Maurkice Pouncey is coming back this season?

AM: I know nothing but I would be stunned. There is absolutely no talk about this at all. Nothing. I don't know what happened. I don't even know if he got that second surgery. I do know he's taken Twitter pictures but he has never said -- at least I don't think -- whether he's had that second surgery. You're much more social-media savvy than me. Have you heard? Because he has never said that.

Q: It's been reported that he has.

AM: I remember it was reported that Ben was very unhappy here and we were going to trade him because Kevin Colbert went to Clemson to scout Tajh Boyd. We saw who that was. But he was not there at all to look at Martavis Bryant, who hasn't turned out to be a good player at all.

Q: (Laughs) OK, coming down the stretch, what do you see as important or urgent when you look at the schedule?

AM: It's always interesting to me when you try to figure out the playoff possibilities and tiebreakers, but when you have a better record than everybody else tiebreakers don't apply. Today, the Steelers are the only non-division leader in the AFC with as many as six wins. At Seattle is going to be a very difficult situation. But then again, as we were talking earlier about things breaking right, then you have Matt Hasselbeck, and then it's at Cincinnati. I'm not going to say that's an easy game, but I mean when can't you go to Cincinnati and win? And then there's the great Brock Osweiler.

Q: To tell the truth, I was looking forward to them playing against Peyton in December.

AM: Either way he's marginal. Then you're going to Baltimore. You've been able to win there, too. You take Flacco and Forsett off that team that's already without Suggs and some of those other people, McPhee, Steve Smith, and that's not looking to be as difficult. I'm going a little off-topic here, but how is Ozzie Newsome, the greatest personnel man in the (expletive) history of the sport, stuck like this?

Q: Yeah, but that's why you can't let that guy go 2-14 and draft so low.

AM: Oh my God it would be the '62 Packers all over again. He'd get 'em all in one round, too. But this should show some of the Colbert's-an-idiot people that it's a cyclical thing, and when you're good for a while you pay the price for picking late year after year after year. And it's not just the first round you're picking late, you're picking late in every round. And all the work that you did, and all the (stuff) that you know, doesn't mean anything when all the players get picked by everybody else. (Chuckles) So, again, let's see if the great Ozzie Newsome can turn his roster around from winning the Super Bowl a couple of years ago without a losing record. I kind of think they're in trouble this year.

Q: They're fighting hard, though.

AM: Well, they're coached by the greatest football family ever.

Q: I don't think I've ever seen them as dirty as they were Sunday.

AM: There's something to be said for their tenacity, but they're not very good, they're not very deep. (Stuff) happens. Sometimes it's hard to be 8-8 when you're turning over a roster because you're still picking late. Everybody gets old at the same time and there are too many to turn over in one year. Not even every draft pick that Ozzie Newsome makes makes the team.

Q: Would you agree that part of the giddiness on the outside is due to the draft picks -- particularly on defense -- turning the corner, big picture-wise?

AM: There are some. Cam Heyward is a dominant player. And he was a 31st pick.

Q: That's not supposed to automatically happen with defensive linemen.

AM: Right. Aaron Donald was a 10th pick. But I like Bud Dupree. I would like to see Jarvis Jones given more of -- I won't say an opportunity -- but maybe it's just more snaps. I understand what James Harrison is, but it's not 2008 here anymore. One of my issues with coaches -- all coaches, not just these coaches because Chuck Noll was like this -- but you get, I don't know, maybe they mean more to you than they should and it becomes a security-blanket thing, maybe. But the jury's still out on Jarvis a little bit. I would like to see him play more because maybe he can break out a little bit. Shazier has to stay healthy, and he's very young as a person still. Tuitt, very good player. Shamarko Thomas, not so much. Doran Grant? I believe his future here is at safety. Senquez Golson, we're going to have to see. The thing with Golson, though, that has been reinforced this year, even through the LeBeau change to Butler, is you've still got to be physical if you play outside. Maybe he's just a slot guy. If that's the case, that's OK, too, because you've got to have four. We learned that in Super Bowl 45. When you have Anthony Madison covering Jordy Nelson, you're going to lose that game 100 times out of 100. That's the old Steve Spurrier thing when he first went to Florida: "My fourth receiver is better than your fourth corner." And that's the NFL game now. Third and fourth receivers are not stiffs. So we're going to have to see. The defense had to not only develop as a unit, but that's the identity of this team. It has been since 1970. What's that? Forty-five years. I think that's just something that is going to be what it is here. But that group had to figure that out, too, where they fit in history. Not that that's what they're thinking with the big picture, but I think that's part of it, too. I don't know. I like the way that it's going. You keep using that word "giddy" but I don't like that.

Q: That's a little strong.

AM: Yeahhhh, really. I just don't want anyone reading this to get that impression because I don't perceive that here. There is very much a confidence that, as I said, probably comes from this: Who are you afraid of playing?


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