Answer Man

The Answer Man -- the city's finest football tactician and wordsmith -- has plenty to say about the Pittsburgh Steelers' loss in New England and Sunday's home game against Jacksonville. Read his latest interview with Jim Wexell here.

JW: Well, what's the state of this team?

AM: I think you'll know a lot more after Sunday. Losing to the Patriots, even by three touchdowns, to me I don't think that's any kind of gauge. Games often roll down the hill and it's impossible to stop it. I think this game will tell more because Jacksonville wants to be a tough-guy team and we want to be a tough-guy team and so let's see if you really are a tough-guy team.

JW: But this isn't a tough-guy team, is it?

AM: Well, that's my fear. The fullback is de-emphasized; it's not a power-running attack anymore. But you can still be a physical team, I believe. Physical doesn't mean hi-diddle-diddle, Rogel up the middle all the time, either. Physical is defense too. Physical is the way the receivers act with the ball after they catch it. Physical is protecting the quarterback, kicking some blitzer's ass. So it doesn't necessarily have to be about running the ball 40 times.

JW: How about getting up and being physical with a receiver at the line of scrimmage? Is that possible or impossible in this scheme?

AM: I don't know if the scheme has as much to do with it as the kind of guys you have playing. I mean, the old coach didn't want to play that way.

JW: They didn't play that way last week, either.

AM: Well you don't have the people. This is his team, in terms of how it is.

JW: Aren't Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden big, physical corners? Can't they beat someone up at the line?

AM: I don't know. I've never seen Ike do it. He's been here how many years? I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing, unless you want to play that way. Cowher didn't. But if this guy does, I don't know if Ike is the guy to do it, and if you try it with him it's a lot of looking over your shoulder without Ryan Clark back there to be dependable. That's why when I say the New England game to me doesn't really say as much about this team as this game will.

JW: But if you beat this team you'll still have to beat New England. Is there anything from that New England game ...

AM: You can't beat New England without Aaron Smith. You can't beat Indianapolis without Aaron Smith.

JW: But those teams barely run the ball.

AM: Aaron Smith is more than just a run-stopping defensive end. He's ... why am I having to sell Aaron Smith to you?

JW: You don't. I just don't understand why the season's over.

AM: I didn't say the season was over.

JW: As long as they don't play New England or Indy, right?

AM: They have to have their reality and how they approach things. That has nothing to do with the reality as I see it from this room. I think that when you're looking at this team and evaluating it, and your job is to evaluate this team, if you think that this team, as currently constituted, is one that you want to be putting up against that New England team for the next four or five years, I don't think you're doing your job either very well or honestly. If you look at Brady and what they have there and how they're doing things, I don't think you have the defensive backs. You don't have the corners to play them. You just don't.

JW: They looked good for a half.

AM: I'm not happy with a half. See, I don't know that you can say ‘Play to this level, and then give me some more.' That to me isn't real. Again, that's what as a coach or player, that's what you're striving for. But if you're evaluating, do you think that with more practice, Ike Taylor can become Champ Bailey? I don't. So what I want is Champ Bailey or someone who has his skill set. You know, you have to be fortunate enough to come into the right system or a team that is willing to work with particular abilities and faults of certain guys. I don't know if Aaron Smith is Aaron Smith if he's playing for the Cowboys. That's what I'm saying: This team, as it's built right now, is built to play a certain way, and the way that it was built to play won a Super Bowl in a year it didn't have to play New England. They don't do well against New England here. You beat them one time when they had injuries in that game and as I remember they came in with a problem. It snowballed quickly and the final was 34-20. We remember that as a big ass-kicking, but it was a whole lot closer than it was Sunday. So, we've got to deal with New England. Hey, that guy [Bill Cowher] was on CBS telling people how the Steelers should beat New England, and he said they need to play soft coverage with your corners. That doesn't work! So, that's what I'm saying. I don't believe that these Pittsburgh Steelers, without Aaron Smith now, too, can beat the Patriots in New England in the playoffs. Now, certainly if that game happens you do your best to win it and all of that stuff, but as you're looking at it, even if it would happen, you can't afford to stand pat. If this team goes to New England and beats them in the playoffs, and it seduces itself into thinking that we're okay, they're not.

JW: But what direction are they taking? I mean, you draft a guy like Matt Spaeth and then you complain because you can't run the ball up the middle, things like that.

AM: Well, I'm the one doing the complaining. I don't know that they are.

JW: There doesn't seem to be a guideline here. It doesn't seem like they have a direction.

AM: They may in fact know and it just hasn't revealed itself yet. I don't know that it's right. But, and we talked about this the last time, this is Cowher's team still. Tomlin isn't Cowher. It's going to take some time to get this thing in the right configuration for this new guy and how he wants to play. And I believe him when he said he still wants to play attrition football. I think there are different ways to get there and this is different and, my personal feelings aside, the fact it's not working now might also be why other things aren't working. They don't have their people here yet.

JW: Yet they are going in the direction of a quick and short passing attack.

AM: I'm not saying there haven't been mistakes made, and one of the biggest mistakes, to me, is what they've been doing up front. Now, nobody can tell me Max Starks isn't one of the five best offensive linemen under contract on this team today. Why he is not playing, again, is a question that if my name was Rooney I'd be asking and there'd better be some damned good answers.

JW: I thought your name was Rooney.

AM: (Laughs) So, I think that Bill Cowher allowed no input from his assistants and that's bad. Mike Tomlin is allowing input from his assistants, and now the key is what's the good input and what's not.

JW: Or what's a good assistant.

AM: Well, hey, he could be a good assistant and be wrong about something or someone. What I would not tolerate are jealousies or pettiness, such as ‘I don't like him.' I don't care.

JW: Do you sense any of that?

AM: I think that's what's going on with Max Starks. Now, I don't know what it is exactly that isn't liked. And it may not be personal. It might be something …

JW: Slow feet?

AM: Right. Or the way he uses his hands or whatever. But, again, that to me isn't good enough because he's one of your five best. See, and then there's a trickle-down. That affects play-calling. I think it's a process and it's going to take time. And it took time for Cowher, too. In the meantime, what I like about this guy and what I liked about Cowher, he's winning. One more win you're in the playoffs and last year you weren't. He beat the Browns twice and they're a legitimate team. If you beat Jacksonville, that to me also lends legitimacy. So this game is a big game. This is a game that a good team will find a way to win.

JW: Does Anthony Smith going off indicate a lack of control? Does he have control of his offensive coordinator? Those questions are kind of bothersome, wouldn't you say?

AM: Well, one of the things Dan Rooney does around here is he doesn't micro-manage. If you're hired to do a job, do your job and when we're done I'll evaluate you and we'll go from there. So the offensive coordinator – you picked it so I'm talking about it – you evaluate him at the end of the year, not now.

JW: Shouldn't the head coach have some degree of control over the play that's being called?

AM: Sure, but I think you have to allow a guy to do his job. Even at the end of the game you want to say, ‘We didn't run the ball enough at the end of the first half.' But if in the fourth series, you're telling him what to run, than just do it yourself anyway because you have to let the pattern emerge. Read the whole column; don't just read the third sentence in the second graph and tell me it sucks.

JW: But in that last graph, when you need that key closing line, it's fourth and one, you can say, ‘Not that line.' I mean, just say, no, not that one. Is that too much interference?

AM: But do you know that that line sucks before it's typed? Because once it's typed it's over. Do you know that that play is no good before it's run? I mean, what if it works? And I HATED that fourth-and-goal call from the one-yard line; I'm telling you I HATED it. I hated it for a lot of reasons: the formation it was run from, the fact it was run to the right. But the fact that Hines Ward had the ball in his hands was not one of the things I hated about it. He is one of the toughest guys in this league. He's the closest thing to Jerome you've got right now. Putting the ball in Hines Ward's hands this far from the goal line, with a running start, is not a bad thing. So, I don't know about the play. If Colon doesn't get his ass kicked, he's in the end zone. But then you can ask: Is this the time Willie Colon's going to get his ass kicked, because he doesn't get it kicked all the time. So that's why I'm saying I think you have to let it all play out and then look at the guy in terms of whether you want to move forward with him in that job.

JW: And the other point, what about the seeming lack of control with Anthony Smith? Do you look at that as a coach problem? A media problem? What?

AM: Um, I'm glad it happened – for a lot of reasons. Anthony Smith now will either learn a lesson or he's not going to be worth keeping beyond his first contract. It'll hasten his development one way or the other. It also, I think, is a lesson for the coach, that what you may think you have under control, you need to tighten down even more. It was also good because Farrior told him to shut his mouth. And those kinds of things to me have to be dealt with in that room. Coaches, outside people, you're talking and it's lip service. But if a teammate – Joe Greene – comes up to you and says ‘Shut the F up,' it was over, that was it. And that's the same thing you need to develop here. Farrior doing that, to me, said a lot of good things. And I think that they all also got to see the aftermath. Whether it was real or not, the Patriots said, ‘Yeah, run your mouth and we'll stick it up yours.' And that's what they did. Now the next time they play them, I'll bet you everybody keeps their mouth shut, no matter how hard you and your friends try to get him to say ‘Guarantee.' So I'm glad it happened because that didn't matter. Maybe it impacted the kinds of touchdowns they scored, but going to New England and losing by more than two touchdowns, to me, does not say anything about any team in this league. There isn't anybody who's too good for that to happen. Now, maybe in one game New England isn't on theirs and you're playing really good and you have the right configuration and you get some lucky breaks and you beat them, I'm not saying they're unbeatable. But when they're playing like they played Sunday and you lose by two or three touchdowns, that could've been anybody. Dallas could lose up there by the same margin if they had to settle for field goals and Randy Moss was running free in the secondary and Rodney Harrison was rocking T.O. once or twice. Again, the only reason I'm looking at New England is to learn more about what I've got to become. That's not something you can handle now.


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