Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

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Back with our weekly Thursday mailbag session for the next hour. Whatever is on your mind, drop it in the comments below.

To your questions!

Jeff McNeill: What would you do to try and improve the defense?

Alex: Sacrifice a goat?

Seriously, that’s a complicated question. There’s a lot you can point to individually, guys just playing better, but that’s not something really even the coaches can control very much.

I think this team is better playing man than zone. They have to be careful not to become too predictable, that’s really the key for anything, and use scheme to confuse offenses and make up for the lack of supreme talent. Little too much 2 Man on 3rd and long against Baltimore that the Ravens began to counter.

Obviously, you want to find ways to get pressure. Get Tuitt and Heyward in gear. That’s something I really need to study. Butler is blitzing more, sending 5+ more often, and that actually might be harming those guys. Because they are now being used for contain/stunting than actual pass rushing. But just a thought I’m kicking around in my head looking at the numbers.

Cliff Volmar: hey Alex for this week’s mailbag. With the 1st quarter of football in the books, if you were GM for the Steelers what would you have done in the draft and free agency differently. And would you have paid Leveon Bell more than the reported 17 million in guaranteed

Alex: Honestly, I don’t pay much attention to what could’ve/should’ve been done. I prefer to look at how things can get fixed moving forward. Because looking back is literally just crying over spilled milk. I hate the “this guy was on the board!” comments. Yeah, everyone would draft better if they were able to do it after the fact.

But to answer the question the best I can, I would have gone after a higher level ILB. Really bummed on missing on Anthony Hitchens. And I still liked taking someone like Malik Jefferson in the draft after missing out on the top three of Edmunds/LVE/Evans. This defense just needs a playmaker. Or two. Or three.

Billy Stalz: Hi Alex,
Is there anyone that you feel you can target on the defense side of the ball in a trade. Possibly a team not in the playoff hunt?

Alex: Eh, I haven’t put much energy into that. It’d be huge to have, I don’t disagree there, but who is giving away those types of assets? Seattle was dragging their feet moving Earl Thomas, a man who didn’t want to play there, was going somewhere else in 2019 (before injury but probably still after) and had Dallas Cowboys coaches basically telling him, “We’re trading for you.”

So as nice as it’d be to get an ILB or corner, good luck finding one. You’re trading for backups and guys who aren’t going to magically make you better, not even considering how far behind a player would be learning the system.


Hi Alex,

Curious to see your thoughts on what happens with Conner once Bell comes back. How does the organization handle this situation? He’s played so well filling in, but Bell is Bell…


Alex: That’s a good question. I mean, there’s still a couple weeks to go so the team doesn’t have to make any decisions. Maybe Conner lights it up. Maybe he really regresses.

But there will be a role for Conner when Bell comes back. Massively reduced, obviously, Bell is Bell like you said and they’re still paying him a hefty amount. But the team can use some two-back sets and bring Bell’s snap count down a little bit (maybe in that 80-85% range) to have Conner out there. Schematically, there’s nothing Conner can’t do anymore. Wasn’t the case last year. So bringing him in won’t make the playbook more limited.

NickSteelerFan: Hey brother! If you knew he answers to all the Steelers woes and could only fix one (with the roster already in house), which would you fix and why?

Alex: Good question. If I could fix the technique of some of the DBs, I would. You look at Joe Haden and Mike Hilton and how good their ball skills are. They don’t win because they’re the biggest or fastest, both of those dudes are pretty average physically. But when the ball is in the air, they make plays. That’s the critical component Artie Burns is missing. And something you want to see more out of the rest of the group too.

Teams are just throwing it 40-50 times a game and with how poorly the secondary plays the ball, offenses are hitting on too many big plays downfield. It’s just math. Throw it enough against this secondary and good things will happen.

If I can cheat and offer a second “fix,” it’d be to find better solutions vs empty. Steelers don’t have anything close to a good solution for it. Mahomes carved them up and the more recent games have seen similar success. I need to dig into the numbers and see how bad the Steelers play against empty. I’m sure it’s dreadful. It’s not easy to handle that but there’s gotta be improvement.


Hey Alex two questions

1. Im all in on tomlin as head coach but i think he needs to hire both the defensive and offensive coordinators from out the organization to bring in new fresh ideas, do you agree?

2. Are you an advocate for the nfl eliminating the hard salary cap for a softer cap similar to the NBA if the players agree to adding 2 additional games to the schedule?

Alex: Well I’m not ready to write off Fichtner. No one should be. It’s been four weeks and there’s less there to criticize than Butler. And we all know why Fichtner was hired. Out of house was a bad idea because of where Roethlisberger is at in his career. No one argued against it at the time.

The defensive side? Yeah, I’m going out of house this time. No argument here.

The salary cap stuff? Eh, I’m fine with where it’s at. I don’t think the league should go to 18 games. Everything is fine where it’s at.

Ian Suttie: 

What’s up with TJ? Dude dominated week 1, and has been MIA since…

He’s the closest thing this defense has to a difference maker – can’t the team come up with some clever ways to put him in better position to make plays?

Alex: Another good question. He’s really struggling one-on-one. There’s a lot of energy, there’s a pass rush plan, he just doesn’t seem quite strong enough for some of the power moves, quite bendy/agile enough for some of the speed stuff. He’s having trouble disengaging. But yeah, it’s weird how well he can dominate against the Browns and pretty much no one else.

Other parts of his game have still been solid but maybe he’s still figuring out this side of the ball. You’re right that I hope they start flipping these guys like they said they would. Largely haven’t yet. So tackles know who they’re seeing.

jger15: Hey AK! In two weeks, will we all be brushing up on our draft guides?

Alex: We’ll see. Have a lot to worry about.

But big picture speaking, these next four games are critical. Atlanta this week then three AFC North matchups. After this, there’s only one division game left (Week 17). Go 1-2 against Cleveland/Cincinnati/Baltimore in that stretch? At best, assuming a win over Atlanta, you’re 3-4-1 and 1-3-1 in the AFC North. That’s going to be a tough hole to climb out of and probably, at best, one of those years where you’re looking for “help” over the final three weeks of the season.

So this next month pretty much defines the storyline for the rest of the year, even if it won’t outright determine if the season is over.


Hi Alex
Kind regards from Mexico
Why Juju does not run the deep routes? Washington is faster than him?

Do u think the routes of the steelers WR are a little bit complicated? I’ve been hearing about it
Thank u!

Alex: Good to hear from you again, Efren.

I don’t have all the numbers of routes run but JuJu runs plenty of deep routes. He’s been the only consistent vertical threat so far this year. But one reason why he might do it less than you’d like is simply because he aligns in the slot. So he’s naturally going to run more to the sticks, to the middle of the field, being the guy Ben can trust on 3rd down, than the deep threat. Just nature of the slot position.

Washington, on paper, is the better vertical threat. That’s a big part why he was drafted.

Nah, the routes aren’t too complicated. It ain’t rocket science. I can’t even think of an example where that was the case and I bet wherever you’re hearing about it couldn’t pick it out either. Just grasping at straws.

Umbra Aeternus: Hey Alex, just wondering, how many steelers players have blocked you on twitter? I know Dave has been blocked by a lot lol

Alex: Maybe not as many as you think, believe it or not.

Two I know of.

Shamarko Thomas. We criticized him a good bit but honestly, probably not as harshly as others. But I guess he didn’t like what we had to say.

Mike Mitchell recently blocked me. Not really sure why, I had barely tweeted about him over the last three months since i noticed it and the things I said were generally positive.

I think maybe that’s it? Maybe someone I’ve forgotten or didn’t notice. I don’t follow every player on the roster or anything so I don’t always pay attention. But that’s ok, I get what they hit the block button. I probably would to some people if I was in the NFL. Just to tune out the criticism in general and just so I could get on Twitter without being flooded with messages of hate from trolls and what not.

Largely, most of the players are really cool. A good chunk of them follow me. Some former, but some current ones too like Cam Heyward, Ramon Foster, and Mike Hilton.


Hey alex, crazy question. Do you think Shazier will be considered for a positional coach or perhaps higher next year….

That is not really the timing I wanted to ask about 🙂

Alex: Not a crazy question, srdan. It’s more than valid. I think whenever his football career ends, he’ll become a coach or scout. We saw him get involved in scouting this offseason and players say he’s been like a coach right now.

But I don’t put a year on it. He’s still trying to come back to play football. And I don’t rule it out.

sdale: I know the TEs weren’t great blocking against the Ratbirds, but it seems like generally Outlaw has been better in the blocking game and Vance is a good blocker. Why haven’t the Steelers thrown in some 2TE sets with a fullback. Both TE are receiving threats, so you could run some play action if they D stacks the box.

Alex: Vance has just gotten back to the point where he can log a heavy amount of snaps. Week One he missed, Week Two return, it’s hard to go from zero to 75% of the snaps when you haven’t broken a sweat since really last season. Hurt in practice #4, missed the entire preseason.

Some of it has been game circumstance. Gotten away from the run game because of score or it plain not being effective enough. This is still a base 11 personnel team so you’re only going to be in 2 TE sets so much. So lot of factors here. I’m not even sure what the YPC is out of 12 personnel.

But playaction off it would be nice. I’m with you there.

stan: Our hearts were all warmed when we read about Artie Burns’ radical improvement during his senior year after learning that he would have to take care of his younger brother. Now I’m wondering if that didn’t also mean that he wouldn’t be motivated once he got his first big contract. Similarly, I’m wondering if its worth considering signing him to an extension even if he improves because he will only be motivated when a contract is on the line.

Alex: Nah, I won’t go there. Rarely do I say someone doesn’t “want it.” Or they’re complacent. So that’s not the case, or at least, nothing I’ve seen to indicate that. It’s not like his rookie contract, even as a first rounder, is a monster payday.

By that logic, he should be playing really well this year to be motivated for the 5th year option upcoming.

Heart and “want to” isn’t the issue. I think he’s committed to the game. Works hard, tries hard, cares, isn’t loafing around out there. The issues are technical and mental.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for stopping by.

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