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Answers to Steelers Questions

SCI publisher Jim Wexell answers customer questions in the first of a two-part weekend series.

I remember when "Ask Vic" was the only such game in town, so I of course stole that handle but made the clever change to "Ask Wex." 

Now, it's everywhere. "Ask the Moron" should be the next iteration. In fact, this might be it:  

SteelTherapy: Keith Butler has mentioned several times how important he feels it is to adjust your system to fit your talent, and although encouraged at times, I'm also highly exasperated at times by what appeared to be a kind of stubbornness when it came to the system and use of players (and I don't mean playing zone against the Pats, I totally get that.) What is your assessment of how Butler and Mike Tomlin have done developing the defensive scheme up to this point for the Steelers, and how do you see it going as they move forward?

JW: I do get frustrated by their obsession with hanging on to their 3-4 precepts while playing a 4-2-5. Do they recognize that James Harrison is a freak? Do they realize that he's a defensive end who can do what they ask in coverage because he knows the defense so well? I am tired of their defensive ends dropping into coverage and that was my biggest problem with the AFCCG. I understand the soft zones killed them, but this was a big part of the reason why. So that's my main beef. We'll see what kind of OLB/DE they draft this year. I think the extremes are Malik McDowell and Haason Reddick. McDowell is a 276-pounder who played out of position, way inside, at Michigan State. He was over the nose far too often. He's a freakish kind of athlete so they may not let slip past them, and if they take him it's a sign to me they're intending on a true four-man front, with him as a defensive end who'll rarely and barely be asked to drop. Derek Barnett is close to that, but I've seen him drop in college. 

If they take the 237-pound Reddick, and many of the top analysts are calling him the prototypical Steelers 3-4 OLB, than it's more of the same and they haven't realized that teams will grind their nickel to a pulp with the run game. There can be no possible way they would be drafting Reddick to play ILB with either Lawrence Timmons or Vince Williams ready to team with Ryan Shazier. ILB would be a waste of a first-round pick. 

But I'm babbling now. I think the key to their future direction is the type of OLB/DE they draft this year. As for them playing more Cover-2 than Cover-3, that's Tomlin's preference, and I know his vision is absolute versatility so I know he would like cornerbacks with man coverage skills.

SteelByDesign: Feels to me the team is kinda stuck at WR. With Martavis Bryant back in the fold they have two great options and solid depth, and while I'm optimistic about Martavis' return, as Art Rooney said, you can't count on him at this point. Guys like DHB, Sammie Coates, Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers are really solid depth but as we saw against New England you don't want any of those guys as your No. 2 option. Do the Steelers address the position as if Martavis could be gone for good at any moment? Or do they go into the season assuming he and Antonio Brown are your go-to guys and fill in the rest with those depth guys? Also, who do you see being the five or six on the active roster come Week 1? I've seen some say they think Sammie doesn't even make the final 53 this season.

JW: I believe the answer is to re-sign Markus Wheaton. That way you get a cheap No. 2 as your hedge against Bryant falling on his face, and if Bryant does what I expect and return to full health, then Wheaton can play the slot. So that gives them three with Brown, and four with Eli Rogers. That leaves the final spot or two to Darrius Heyward-Bey, Sammie Coates, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers. The first two need to rehabilitate injuries and the other two need to show how much they grew during their intense 2016 incubation period. Let the competition begin. 

If they can't sign Wheaton as cheaply as they should, then we're looking at addressing the problem you described by first checking on Bryant and then planning appropriately for the draft and/or free agency, because I'm not sure Coates is the answer.

Tyranid: How do you beat New England or an Aaron Rodgers-led Packers team? Can this defense actually contain a highly prolific passer (say 20-24 points allowed max) in 2017 and what do they need to do to get there? I guess I just don't understand how a single pass rusher and no additions in the secondary will lead to a team that's hoisting a Lombardi in a year.

JW: Well, Tomlin has beaten both of those teams in his career, but they do need to be healthy (Cam Heyward) and they do need to groom another edge rusher and I'm not sure why you say they won't have an addition to the secondary. They're close and should add someone with man coverage skills. 

That said, they also need to get the home field and get a bye so they're not exhausted. And getting those eight days between games as opposed to six would also help. Then the offense has to do its job. I think the maturity gained from this past season, and the fact the rebuilding of the defense is in its final phase, all of that is a definite possibility.

Tyranid: I'm worried about the TE position. It's "OK" with or without Ladarius Green but it isn't an asset in the way Heath Miller was, or a Jason Witten is now. I guess I've been spoiled by having reliable guys who were in uniform every game (like Miller, Hines Ward, etc.), who made the tough catches, were physical in the run game and were just highly dependable. Can this team win reliably without that?

JW: I think so. I do believe they need a better blocking tight end, but if they don't want to draft, say, a George Kittle in the fifth or sixth round, I feel they could still win with David Johnson or Chris Hubbard as the blocking tight end. I believe Ladarius Green will make a recovery and I believe Jesse James made a ton of progress this year, and they also have Xavier Grimble, so the tight end position to me -- with the talent I expect them to have at wide receiver -- shouldn't be an issue.

MightyVeg: Does Ben get his nose bent out of joint if the team spends a premium pick on a QB? Despite his raising the retirement issue, I could see him being pissed if the team addresses that "need" before the others that could help Ben win a last sticky Lombardi or two in his final years. Is that a factor at all in our draft strategy?

JW: I do believe that in the past the team would've worried about Ben Roethlisberger's feelings. And I do believe that's why they stressed on Landry Jones' draft day that Landry was necessary for them to develop depth at the position. But now? Heck no. The guy threatened retirement. While I never for a minute believed that would come to pass, it certainly green-lighted them to begin the search without worrying about his feelings. And, frankly, since there really isn't a position of true first-round need, I would disagree with you that they need to pass at QB again this year. If one of value comes along -- and one might, considering there are some decent QBs who aren't being embraced as early picks by analysts -- I wouldn't mind for a minute because A.) these bottom-of-R1 pass-rushers are question marks and might be reaches, and B.) help in the secondary will undoubtedly be available in the second round.

MightyVeg: Historically, the team has tried to sign one reasonably priced UFA before the draft to pare down its draft needs and reduce the temptation to reach for need. I know there are still a number of variables, but what position do you think the team is most likely to target in that regard? WR? CB? And whom would you target?

JW: If I were to post odds in Las Vegas, I would favor a defensive lineman for them to throw into their rotation. It just seems like they want to get in line with what so many top college programs (and now NFL teams like Seattle) are doing in rotating fresh legs on the defensive front. 

But my personal favorite is Melvin Ingram. If they could somehow convince this edge rusher to come play for Tomlin and take his best chance at winning a ring, perhaps they could get him at a reasonable rate. Then my answer to your previous question about drafting a quarterback becomes an easier proposition.

GPaps38: Do you think the team has any interest in Christian McCaffrey as someone at No. 30? He would be an upgrade to our kick-return unit as well as serve as a backup to Le'Veon Bell. I also think he can play the same time as Bell, with one of them lining out wide or in the slot.

JW: Your taste in ballplayers is the same as mine. You know, when I rank the RBs, I want to rank McCaffrey third behind Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook. But when I want to rank players I couldn't/wouldn't pass on, I want to rank McCaffrey ahead of those two, probably because of the versatilily that you mentioned. I would love to have that guy on the team because A.) he admires Bell and was tickled last month when someone mentioned the similarity between the two, and B.) the Patriots would assuredly take him two picks later. While Fournette and Cook are potential Hall of Famers, and I probably couldn't pass on either, I would be more excited to add McCaffrey to the roster.

BigSteelz: Not a real question, but any insight on some of these guys we've been adding to the roster? Any potential?

JW: This is actually a great question and one I was going to put off until Part II tomorrow, until I realized I won't be able to provide a better answer then, either. 

Obviously, guys signed after the futures contracts period in January are extreme longshots. But right now, before getting down to the South Side and asking around, I would say my early favorite is Mike Matthews, the son of Bruce Matthews, who's the close friend of OL Coach Mike Munchak. The young Matthews is a mobile center who needs to get stronger. I could see him becoming useful after spending a year on the practice squad. But I'll have more info on Matthews, Mel Blount's son Akil Blount, and the other guys like them in the spring. It might not be the first morsels of info on the new players, but I guarantee it'll be the best.

Matt6999: How was Ben's retirement threat taken by the staff and the players? Was it viewed as a message that things need to change or as Ben being Ben. He said we were outcoached and when questioned about playcalling he said "ask Haley, he's over there." Pretty pointed to be ignored.

JW: Matt, Matt, Matt. I should hire you just to parse the Roethlisberger comments because there seems to be a great market for them. I've ignored the extraneous remarks throughout his career because I think I know him as a person well enough to know this stuff means little in his grand scheme of things -- at least that's what I've always thought. And this retirement talk to me was all just "I'm tired, back off" stuff. I really don't understand how one loss after nine straight wins turns him into disliking his coach, particularly with him knowing the patchwork receiving crew with which he was working and the fact his running back was injured.

But anyway, I'm looking back at his post-game transcript and I see a question about Ben not running a sneak. Since this series was an embarrassment and a turning point, I can understand why Ben felt threatened by the question so I didn't take his answer of "We just go with the plays that are called. (Todd Haley) calls a play to me and we call it in the huddle" as indicating any kind of acrimony. I just felt it was his defense mechanism, and one that didn't matter to me. New England was jacked up to stop the sneak and Roethlisberger doesn't like running them anyway. 

I do not see the "ask Haley, he's over there" comment in the transcript. In the past, I've always taken those "You'll have to ask the coach" answers as answers he and others have learned from the coaches themselves, when they say "You'll have to ask Ben himself how he feels about being compared to Tom Brady," or whatever. Troy Polamalu was good for that, too, but no one ever felt he was disrespecting his coaches. It's just how they've learned to answer unanswerable questions.

As for the other comment -- "They outcoached us, they outplayed us, they out-executed us" -- I thought the scoreboard said exactly that. It just didn't mean anything to me. I just thought it was another cliche. Maybe you know more than I, but it didn't signify to me any unhappiness. It only reflected 36 to 17.

Some people want Ben to explain himself better in such situations. I have a feeling you're one of them. Others I talk to in and around the organization wish he would shut up entirely with his addenda. I really don't care. I know he's a bit of a rebel, and I know he hates to lose, but I've felt all along that he's always meant well by his coaches and teammates. If I'm wrong, so be it, because I haven't seen it affect much of anything on his teams.

Hey, maybe he was just trying to seize a Jerome Bettis post-2004 moment. It seemed to work out well the next year.

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