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Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

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As always, welcome back to your Thursday afternoon Pittsburgh Steelers’ mailbag. We’ll be here for the next hour answering whatever is on your mind.

And off the top, no, I don’t think Mike Tomlin should be fired.

To your questions!

Reader783: 

Hey Alex,
I don’t want to make you get into the whole “fire coaches” discussion on your Mailbag, I know your opinion from the podcasts and it’s really just a matter of opinion anyway (and you have now made it explicitly clear off the bat lol). I do want to point out some things that alarm me a bit and I’ll see if you can offer an explanation, or if there is a problem.

Under Coach Tomlin, the Steelers have drafted 15 DBs in the first 5 rounds: Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett, Crezdon Butler, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, Shamarko Thomas, Terry Hawthorne, Shaq Richardson, Doran Grant, Senquez Golson, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Cameron Sutton, Brian Allen, Terrell Edmunds.

The jury is still out on Edmunds, Sutton and Davis (and maybe Allen and Burns), but one could argue that the Steelers are now 0/15 drafting DBs under Mike Tomlin. Maybe it’s horrible luck, but that seems unlikely to me. The more alarming trend, something I pointed out elsewhere on Depot, is the regression of DBs. Artie Burns, Sean Davis and now, shockingly, Mike Hilton have all regressed from their rookie seasons. One could easily argue that all 3 had their best seasons as rookies and are now much worse. This trend is especially alarming for those young guys, but can also be applied to Joe Haden, Mike Mitchell, Morgan Burnett and William Gay, though the argument for age is strong for them.

Do you have any explanation for these trends? It’s especially alarming because Mike Tomlin was a DBs coach for several years before he owned the 32nd ranked pass defense in Minnesota in his 1 year as DC. I fear that things are not going to improve at the DB position and that we’ve wasted a lot of talent.

Alex: All fair points and you should be frustrated. I’m frustrated. The ineptness of this team evaluating DBs has been a long issue. Even knowing half that list are mid-late round picks, most of those guys never did anything else in the NFL. Several immediately fell out of the league. That tells me it was an evaluation issue, the talent was never there, not as much on the positional coaching once the player got here (obviously, the positional coach has a hand in the evaluation, too). But there’s a root issue with the scouts too, since they start the process.

In their defense, they were going to take William Jackson III before taking Burns. If they do that, we’re probably having a different conversation. Of course, you also have to wonder how a team who evaluated WJIII so well missed on Burns to much.

So short answer is no, I don’t have good explanations, other than just not evaluating talent properly, and that yes, it’s a huge issue. I’ve written about it plenty, just not recently.

All the more reason to make your free agency splash in the secondary again. Find someone with a more proven NFL resume that takes some of the guesswork out of it, like you have when drafting a player.

Do want to at least point out is that there is a difference between “regression” and “poor stretch of play.” Before Week 12, it would’ve been fair to say Davis and Hilton were at least at the same level as last year, if not improved a little bit. To say they have overall regressed…I’m not sure if I’d agree.

T R: how bad has Boz been at home or indoor.. next 3 games 2 at home and 1 indoors. Can this fix his woes. How many misses has he had at home in Heinz Field

Alex: You can check out Boswell’s career splits here. 

According to PFR, he’s played in only one true dome. Made both field goals and extra points.

He’s been better at Heinz than on the road. 89% at home, 81% on the road. Five of his six misses this year have come on the road, too.

NickSteelerFan: Hey brother! I still believe that this team can beat the Patriots, or any team, on any given week. For this week if you could fix one of the Steelers deficiencies against this Patriots team, which would it be?

Alex: Just one? Can this be one of those “I wish for more wishes” scenario? Please?

It would be a secondary that can make plays at the catch point. You’re not going to beat Brady if your DBs can’t make plays on the football. He’s going to carve you up otherwise, even if you’re playing man coverage. I want to fix that for any team, not just Brady. With how easy it is for offenses to move the ball, how open the field has become, you need DBs who can win one-on-one.

Wixie: Alex,
Do you think Tomlin’s era may have run it’s course like Mike McCarthy in Green Bay and Andy Reid in Philadelphia? Feels like something has to give. Also what staff changes do you think should and will happen?

Alex: No, I don’t think it has. And if it has, it’s too early to tell. McCarthy and Reid had bad years back-to-back before getting canned. I know Tomlin had those 8-8 seasons a couple years ago but bounced back and that may have saved his job. So you trust him to be able to do it again. It’d take another bad year, an ugly 2019, for that conversation to actually become legitimate. Who knows, if this team can beat New England and New Orleans, this whole topic goes away.

As for staff changes…I’ll write about it after the season ends. See how things play out.

srdan: Do you feel different about this teams chances of beating the pats today than you did 4 weeks ago? Sans Conner.

Alex: Of course. It’s hard not to. Even if the Steelers won their last three, I think I would’ve still picked New England, because the Steelers have to prove they can slay the dragon, but certainly you know their chances are reduced now. I don’t know how they get a stop. I don’t know what the defensive gameplan is going to be.

The odds aren’t impossible, the Steelers have surprised and they could win this game, but it’s hard to be optimistic right now.

Jefferson_St_Joe: The Steelers seemed to break precedent by guaranteeing 2 years value of salary with Boswell by giving him $8M of a 4yr/$16M contract in year 1. I can’t see them giving him a $2M roster bonus this Spring unless things change radically. (They couldn’t possibly give him the roster bonus just to save the dead money hit, could they?) Could this be their worst contract?

Alex: Hard for me to see them doing it either, even if they keep Boswell for the rest of the season. Is it a bad contract? Sure. But you always take that risk locking up a kicker long-term. You know they can fall apart at a moment’s notice and their success/failure comes down to a handful of plays, unlike almost any other position. Six snaps (his missed FGs) is the difference between “Boswell is the best!” and “Boswell sucks!” That’s why there’s so much pressure with the position. So I can’t blame the team. At the time, it was the right decision.

Grant Humphrey: Hey Alex,
Can you think of any reason why the Steelers would demote Mike Hilton? Obviously, him being with the scout team doesn’t ensure he will be, but let’s just say he was for the sake of the question.

Alex: Just trying something new. Trying to mix the lineup up. I don’t agree with the decision but Hilton has had his roughest stretch the last couple weeks.

If it were me, Sutton would replace Sensabaugh at RCB and I would explore changes at Burnett’s dime linebacker spot. Maybe Marcus Allen. Maybe even Jordan Dangerfield. Hilton and the slot isn’t what I’d do but that said, I get why they’re trying something. The current group isn’t working.

Marcel Chris Chauvet: Alex, a thought crept into my head last week while watching our outside linebackers: Can you remember the last time that you saw either one of our starters attempt a bull rush? I don’t mean successfully. I mean, while trying to rush the passer (not hold the edge) have you seen them attempt to get their hands in a guys chest and drive him back towards the QB? I can’t, but you watch a lot more taoe than I do.

Alex: Oh sure, both do it. A lot, actually. They’re either trying to rip through the edge or bull rush back. Here’s Watt trying it to Brandon Parker last week.

Is it effective? A better question. But does it happen? Definitely.

jger15: Hey AK! Listening to Greg Cosell on how the Bears defense was so effective in stopping the Rams this past week, it sounds like Fangio has done a remarkable job throughout the year in disguising and employing nuanced coverages looks post-snap to confuse QBs. Chicago’s pass rush/talent advantage aside, is the team not capable of installing effective coverage disguises mid-year? Or would that be something Butler would have had to start in mini-camp?

Alex: Yes and no. I actually think Butler has done a better job of trying to disguise and rotate coverages as the year has gone on. I was going to write about that before the Jaguars game. Then things fell apart and I was writing about all the problems.

Having a less talented, young secondary, a lot of new pieces, does make you more limited. You can’t be as comfortable rotating a guy like Terrell Edmunds because you want him to process less information. Make sure he’s in the right spot, playing as fast as he can. So it does limit year. As the year went on, you saw them doing a little of it. But mostly some simple rotation stuff, disguising who was single high, going from a two high look to single high.

You don’t have a guy like Troy who can really hide a coverage. You don’t have a ton of great, smart athletes who you trust to do that kind of stuff. There is no Eddie Jackson in this secondary. So some of it just isn’t possible. That’s why all the issues don’t fall squarely on Butler. There’s a coaching and talent issue. Both must be addressed.

Jeremy: 

Alex, a couple league type questions that probably will be short answers:

Was there any disciplinary type actions for the officiating crew in the LAC game?
What did the league do to make the National Anthem issue completely disappear?

Alex: I’m not positive if there are fines involved. The big one is refs who don’t grade out well (they’re all graded each week) don’t get the chance to work more. The playoffs, the Super Bowl, where I (think?) they get paid more at the least, the same, and earn money for working those games instead of sitting them out. So that’s the biggest incentive to doing a good job. More work, more money.

As for the Anthem, I guess fewer players are kneeling. Who still is? Kenny Stills in Miami? I can’t think of anyone else. So it’s less “in your face” and less of an issue, especially once the NFL dropped its dumb proposal about fining clubs for players who kneel.

And really, it’s just the news cycle. Stories don’t even last 24 hours anymore. So even for something big like the Anthem, that story wasn’t going to survive an entire year with all that downtime inbetween. People get mad, fight online, forget, move onto something else to yell about. The system works!

Matt Manzo: 

Are you still open?!!!

If we roll without Conner do you see any difference in the rushing attack this week, compared to last week? Maybe less Ridley and more Samuels up the middle? Seems like we need to get creative or at least adjust the running game to Samuels.

Alex: I could see a little more of Ridley. But if the run game just isn’t working, then you’re relying on the short pass/screen game. And that’s where Samuels is head and shoulders above Ridley. So I can see Ridley get a few more snaps but Samuels will still be the lead guy if Conner can’t go.


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

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