Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

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Welcome back to our weekly mailbag. Like always, we’re here for the next hour to answer whatever is on your mind. Let’s jump in.

To your questions!


How good is TJ Watt?

What does he need to be a Pro bowl player?

Alex: Wow, that’s an open-ended question. You see a lot of development in his game for a second-year guy. A guy who can do a lot in your defense, a well-rounded player. Solid against the run, comfortable in coverage, can line up off ball and move around in sub, and a pass rusher who can be a handful when he’s on a hot streak.

Obviously, you want to see more consistency from him. Sacks coming in bunches. Three against the Browns, three against the Falcons. Zero in the rest.

What does he have to do better? Like Dupree, I don’t think there’s enough power in his game. Because he’s not a super athlete or bendy pass rusher, he wins most of the time by running through contact, using his hands, and often finishing with a rip move. So his ability to convert speed to power, be a threat inside is going to be key because tackles will let him try to win the edge and seal him. But to keep it broad, you need to see more consistency in his game.

The Steelers need to begin flipping Dupree and Watt around too, like they claimed they were going to do but have hardly executed. Watt has only nine snaps on the right side this year. Dupree 34 on the left.

CP72: Alex,
Please get me some perspective on why the coaching staff seems reluctant to play LJ Fort as the nickel linebacker. All the guy does is produce when he gets an opportunity.

Alex: To be a little fair to them, let’s see how things go when Fort is healthy, presumably out of the bye. Didn’t get a chance to see how they would handle him post-Falcons game with that injured ankle.

But even if Fort is glued to the bench afterwards, I’m not going to be able to give you a good answer. I guess they don’t trust him versus the run and see him as only an “obvious pass” guy. That’s largely how he was used versus Atlanta.

Bostic has played well, even done ok in coverage, and Vince is their guy, their signal caller, and he’s not getting removed. They have their starters and I don’t think are super willing to pull those guys off the field.

Phil Brenneman II: 

Woah, I actually made one of these things.

Value as a player aside, which do you think is more valuable Alex. The rest of the money you could save if Bell doesn’t come back or whatever he adds to the compensation formula if he does come back and then leaves in FA? If your answer is the money and given what you know now of Conner, would you take the remaining money and ride with our RB crew as is or would you want Bell to come back and get into the rotation?

Alex: You made it! And back at it with the Bell hypotheticals, lol.

I guess I’ll take the pick. The Steelers have still saved a big chunk of money and you still can’t count on them to be big spenders in free agency, even if Bell skipped out on the entire season and the team didn’t bring him back. They’re still a team who is building through the draft so the pick offers a lot of value.

I still want Bell back because he makes the team better. Simple as that. Though as I’ve repeatedly said, Conner has more than deserved a significant role in this offense. Not a five snap, two carry a game kind of guy. We’re talking a 65/35 type of split.

Brian Tollini: It’s no secret that offenses have the advantage over defenses in today NFL. That being said and using the Steelers/Bengals game as a prime example, are we going to start seeing a major shift in strategy at the end of games with prioritizing running time off the clock before scoring a go-ahead TD. Obviously scoring is still the #1 priority, but do you think we will see teams really start trying to run a few more plays and purposely not scoring too soon?

Alex: Nah, not really. It’s hard to not score. It runs counter to everything your job entails. Besides, every team probably has way too much confidence in their defense anyway so they’ll always roll the dice.

“We just gotta go out and execute” – every coach, ever

Aside from some situations where you wind the play clock down a little bit, offenses aren’t going to adjust very much. Not more than they already have. They’re not running plays designed to chew clock. They want to score and trust the other side of the ball to do their job.


Hey Alex,

Would it be wise for the Steelers to watch some New Orleans’ tape on the usage of Kamara + Ingram for if/when Bell gets back?

Alex: Guess it can’t hurt but I don’t think you need to look at another team’s blueprint to figure out what to do with Bell and Conner. Fichtner is creative enough to make it work and if not, then he’s probably not suited for the job. He has a very good problem to solve. Too much talent. If you can’t figure that out…

It’s not that much of a new concept anyway. The Steelers have had moments of a Pony backfield before, even when the talent was a far cry from what they have now . Remember the Dwyer/Rainey days? They used Pony a decent bit in training camp too so they’re concepts and schemes that have existed for awhile now.

Pittsburgh doesn’t need to look outside their window. Just throw on the film from St. Vincent.

Generic Steelers Fan: Do you think James Washington will take that big step these coming weeks similar to Juju’s time-frame last year? Have you seen anything to suggest such a possibility?

Alex: We’ll see. I wish I had that crystal ball. Do I think he’ll catch more than five passes? Yes. Receivers can take a long time to adjust. I think we were all spoiled by what Smith-Schuster did last year. I can barely explain how he did it, especially after missing large chunks of the preseason, other than he’s just a great player.

But bear in mind that while Smith-Schuster was more productive than Washington at this point of their careers, it’s not like he was lighting the world on fire. His yardage totals from the first seven games.


It wasn’t until the Lions game where he broke out for those 193 yards. Again, more productive than Washington. Playing in the slot helps that. A lot. But it took him some time too to really become an every-game threat.

Still have confidence Washington will be just fine. Patience.

ImMikeD: Hey Alex. What’s your take on why Matthew Thomas can’t get on the field? I’m tired of Watt, Chickillo and other lbs covering WR and TE. It’s just not working. Seems to me his athletisism can’t be any worse.

Alex: I think it’s always been true the team has had more internal confidence in their ILBs than the fans have. They like Bostic and Williams and the job they’ve done (and they’re right about that). There’s most trust in Fort too and he obviously played really well.

Tweeted this out yesterday that Thomas is still having a hard time getting a consistent hat on special teams. He’s been a backup at different spots, including gunner, which is pretty cool to see, but if Fort/DHB are healthy, the only unit Thomas starts on is kick return.

So if the coaches aren’t giving you a hat on special teams and you’re a UDFA rookie…you’re probably a ways away from seeing time on defense. Gotta crawl before you walk, ya know?

Umbra Aeternus: Do you think this is the last year as a steeler if Jesse James? I like him and find it weird the team didn’t offer him a modest extension this past offseason.

Alex: I sure hope not. Ideally, he’ll want to stick around and I imagine the team will want him back for the right price. But if he wants to at least look at the market to try and be a full-time starter somewhere…who knows. But he’s been a steady presence for this team and losing him would definitely sting.

Steeler Kane: With his history, and turn out so far this year, do the Steelers cut Morgan at years end and go get another vet safety in FA? Or they roll the dice next year and hold on to Burnett?

Alex: We’ll have to see how the rest of the season plays out. But I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if he’s cut. Edmunds is the full-time starter next year and probably even the rest of this year, even if Burnett comes back healthy. So are you going to pay a guy $5 million to be a dime package player/backup? Maybe, maybe not. Throw in his injury history and you could just move on. Hope Marcus Allen can develop or something.

Ian Suttie: 

Since we’re on the bye I’m going to ask a “next year” question… How strong is our cap position going to be in 2019? With Bell gone (presumably), Shazier off the payroll, Bell’s non-earned salary rolled over, the rise in the the cap, etc we should have $40M or more to spend, no?

There will be a couple of extensions to take care of (Ben and others?) but that should leave more cap room that we’ve had in like forever.

What would you do with that GM Kozora?

Alex: I don’t follow the cap situation the way Dave Bryan does so I’m not totally clear on how much space they will/could have. There’s still this whole Bell situation to deal with. How much money will they save? Will they tag? Franchise or transition? Everything you’re talking about has us still in the weeds.

So it’s honestly hard to answer your question and I really haven’t spent much time thinking about it. I do want to bring Jesse James and Ramon Foster back. I can tell you that much. And they’ll be cheap.


Since the NFL is cracking down on roughing the passer to prevent QB injuries, can’t they lighten up a bit on defensive holding and PI? Those penalties are just as big a back breaker as RTP, especially a ticky tack holding call on 3rd down and greater than 5. These penalties don’t prevent injuries and if they’re not going to let the defensive players play in the trenches, at least let them play in the open field.

And yes, this includes the Kirkpatrick call late in last weeks game.

Alex: It’d be nice. Don’t expect it to change anytime soon. Welcome to the NFL.

zbluez: Alex, based upon what we have seen so far this year, would you like to see the D-line play more head up or in the gap against the pass to perhaps provide more pass rush?

Alex: Eh, I guess I haven’t looked closely enough to have a preference. I don’t think that’s the real issue. A lot of the stunting and blitzing they do, a career high under Keith Butler, and I think that’s holding them back a bit. I don’t think their actual alignment is the real problem. In the gap puts some more stress on the o-line anyway.

Vance Mac: Any position on the defense that’s so good you WOULDN’T take a run at a premium player come the offseason?

Alex: Only defensive end. That’s about it. Any other position? Bring them to me.

srdan: Six game in I say Dupree is outplaying Watt. What do you think?

Alex: I disagree. Watt has simply been more protective, still better versus the run, like him more in coverage, and his pressures are nearly objectively more high quality sacks/pressures than what Dupree has.

Steel Dodo: If a Kicker gets the yips …. i might be able to think of someone if I think hard enough …. what can a coach or the player himself do to work through it?

Alex: That’s a good question. I’m sure there are a variety of approaches to it. Don’t think there’s a one size fits all approach to it. Depends a lot on the player, his issues, and his personality. You’re looking at the tape to see what technique flaws there are (Danny Smith said he identified two of them with Boz) and some teams can use a psychologist to help on the mental side of things. Because so much of this process is mental. But it varies and there’s no black-and-white answer I can give you.

Jason Kelley: How’s your Madden franchise going this year? I can’t stop thowing interceptions!

Alex: I…gave up after one game and went back to playing NHL 19. It’s a lot more fun. But I feel your pain.

stan: I couldn’t believe they didn’t penalize Burfict’s cheap shot on AB last week and the quick decision for no suspension was even crazier. Its almost like the league has decided to protect Burfict so they can keep him in the league for entertainment value.

What do you think a fair extension for Hargrave would look like? Obviously the team would like to keep him, but with DT’s playing fewer and fewer snaps, you can’t afford to expend too many resources on one.

Alex: I guess Burfict’s saving grace is that while he was definitely going for a kill-shot on AB but he didn’t really make contact with his head. Ended up hitting his own teammate, Jessie Bates, more than AB. So I guess their reasoning is that it wasn’t enough to suspend him for it. I don’t think it’s an entertainment value thing. They probably want to suspend him as much as any Steelers’ fan.

I haven’t thought much about a Hargrave extension. I don’t imagine it’ll be crazy expensive. Let’s see how the rest of the year finishes up.

MattSteelCurtain91: Your all star dream team from coaches to kickers. Can go back n bring players coaches to make your all star team. Who you taking?

Alex: Oh man, Matt, that’s a really long answer I’d have to delve into. I did a “best of” series a couple summers ago that you should search for. Expands on it better than I can write here. And I have my top 100 list here. But my hastily put together answer.

I’m running a 3-4 here so I have to merge some of the schemes, especially at LB, over the years. So don’t yell at me.

Coach: Chuck Noll
QB: Ben Roethlisberger
RB: Le’Veon Bell
FB: Rocky Bleier
WR: Antonio Brown
WR: Lynn Swann
WR: John Stallworth
TE: Heath Miller
LT: Marvel Smith (the healthy version)
LG: Alan Faneca
C: Mike Webster
RG: David DeCastro
RT: Jon Kolb
DE: Aaron Smith
NT: Casey Hampton
DE: Cam Heyward
OLB: Kevin Greene
OLB: James Harrison
ILB: Jack Lambert
ILB: Jack Ham
CB: Jack Butler
CB: Mel Blount
CB: Rod Woodson
S: Troy Polamalu
S: Donnie Shell
K: Roy Gerela
P: Pat Brady
LS: Greg Warren

That’s all for this week. Thanks a bunch for your questions. Enjoy the bye week!

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