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Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

Welcome back to the mailbag. As always, we’re here for the next hour to answer whatever is on your mind.

To your questions!

AB: 

Alex,

Talk me off the ledge here if Butler is staying. Do you think Tomlin takes over more of the play calling (don’t think he’s suited for that either really). Do you draft defense heavy and hope play makers bail out poor scheming? Should we be excited at all for 2019? HELP!!

Alex: Hard to talk you off the ledge when we’re both standing on it. I don’t think Tomlin should take over as playcaller. He has enough on his plate as it is and given his struggles as a game/clock manager and with challenges, calling the defense isn’t going to help those problems.

Yes, you draft defense heavy. That would be the plan no matter who the DC was. Issues aren’t either/or, coach or players. It’s both. It’s always both. So you hope with more talent, the defense will be more flexible, and that they’ll just make more plays. And Butler will look better because of it.

Bill Sechrengost: If the Steelers do trade Antonio Brown, do you think they would be better off signing a free agent WR or just picking a WR in the 2019 draft to add to their depth at the position?

Alex: It’ll depend on who, obviously, but more likely the draft. I’m not spending big money on a FA. You get one crack at this thing and it’s gotta come defensively. With their track record of identifying talent at receiver, I’m comfortable with a mid-round pick if that’s the route they go. Not giving any receiver more than $2-3 million in free agency. Max.

Brian Tollini: Really hoping 2019 is a year one of ouroyoung guys in the secondary grows leaps and bounds. Cam Sutton is someone that I think needs to get more opportunities. Where do you see his ceiling? Can he be starting CB or his more of a slot guy/ Swiss army knife?

Alex: Hard to say. 2019 will certainly be a critical year for him and I think the team wants to give him a chance. Let him sink or swim, like I wrote about this morning. I like him on the outside more than the slot but the team has played him more inside.

At worst though, like you said, he’s a swiss army knife. Honestly, maybe I’m being pretty optimistic here, but if you add a talented corner opposite Joe Haden (a big ask, I know) your CB group is going to look pretty ok.

Joe Haden
New Guy
Hilton/Sutton
Sensabaugh (I’d bring him back on the cheap)
Brian Allen

Sutton can be a top backup anywhere. Or maybe he starts in the slot. Sensabaugh as a #5 is actually really good. And Allen is a quality special teamer. One move changes a lot.

Reader783: Alex, you seem to be one of the more objective people who looks at Danny Smith’s special teams, so I figure you’d be best to justify him staying/calm me down. The way I see it, our special teams are always woefully penalized, poorly coached and never make any positive plays for us, but rather have backbreaking issues like poor punting that has us in a field position hole, penalties that negate anything good and make bad things worse and a kickoff squad that has me nervous every time. It seems to me that Danny Smith draws up 1-2 good punt block plays a year to save his job, because outside of those this ST is filled with penalties, failed fakes, horrid punting, horrible punt and kick coverage and no explosive returns. Am I off base here, or do you think I’m right, but think that 1-2 punt blocks a year justifies his job?

Alex: At this point, I think I’ve either convinced you about Danny Smith (there are very few people who are convinced, fighting a losing battle there) or you just want him gone. Probably not changing many minds at this point.

Here are the two broad reasons why I think Smith is a good coach and should stay. This question should apply to any coach/coordinator.

1. Players play hard for him. He loves them, they love him.

And for special teams, a gritty, “buy in” position where you’re usually taking college all-stars who haven’t play on the kick team since freshman year of college (sometimes not at all), that’s even more important than other positions. Special teams might be the hardest job of all. You’re probably coaching the most players, or just as many as a coordinator, from all over the place. What position does a ST coach not teach? Offensive linemen? Field goal kick team. Tight ends? Kick return/punt coverage. Wide receivers? Punt team/return. Defensive linemen? Field goal block.

Heck, I bet he even works with quarterbacks a little as a backup holder. And I think everyone buys into what he’s selling. Doing so doesn’t guarantee success, I know. Failing to do so does guarantee failure.

2. He puts players in position to win.

Again, speaking big picture here. There are moments Smith has failed in that regard and I’ve been the first to point that out. Stevan Ridley not knowing where to line up on the safety punt this year? I’m putting that on Smith. Didn’t feel like a guy put in position to win. There may be reasons for that, again, tons of moving pieces and in-game, injuries can make this a mess.

Quick side note: ever hear Pat McAfee explain what happened on the Colts/Patriots fake punt disaster, literally the worst play ever “run” in NFL history? That long snapper, wide receiver Griff Whalen, wasn’t supposed to be in that spot. The player they ran it with all week was hurt in the middle of the game and they used Whalen as a replacement. There was miscommunication, confusion, and you know the rest.

Anyway, I’ve cited tons of examples of his players being in the right spots. Smith problem-solving, another crucial element of coaching, to fix problems, especially before they actually happen. Like the punt formation he used to ensure the Patriots’ punt block team wouldn’t be a threat. Or things like, yes, his punt block schemes.

I like Smith not just because of those punt blocks. That’s one of many reasons. I point to that so often because hey, it’s fun to talk/write about (and no one else does, I like to zig when others zag), but also to highlight all that goes into special teams. That it’s more than just field goals, punts, and returns. There’s a whole cat and mouse game always being played. And to judge a STs coach, I think you gotta look at all that stuff.

To your points, for the penalties, I largely put that on players. I don’t blame Danny Smith because of a holding or block in the back. How is that on the coach and not the player? I’m pretty sure they know not to do that. There are instances where penalties are on him (like the safety punt fouls) and again, I’ve talked about that before too. I’m the first to criticize.

Not to go all holier than thou in this answer because I’m still an idiot, but I’m pretty sure I pay attention to special teams more than anyone else in Steelers’ Nation. And if Smith was bad and I wanted him gone, I’d say that. Have no reason to go to bat for him. I’m not his agent. So when I write about why I think he is a good coach, I hope that carries a little weight.

MattSteelCurtain91: The offers roll in for AB and you get to make the decision one of these players plus there second rounder.
1 Von Miller
2 Patrick Peterson
3 JJ Watt
Bonus: If Sean Lee is let go by Dallas level of interest in signing him?

ALex: Give me Von Miller. Comes down to Miller or Watt. I think Watt is the better player and they’re the same age but OLB is a bigger need. Peterson isn’t in that tier of talent, he’s a notch below, so going with Miller.

Sean Lee? I can’t trust him to stay healthy. So I’ll pass.

BurghBoy412: What do you think the chances are that this team choosing to stick with Butler will make us all look silly next year? It’s serious doom and gloom about the lack of a coaching move at DC. What are the chances they prove us all wrong?

Alex: Hey, I hope I’m wrong. I know there were elements he was hamstrung by. Namely, a relatively new/young secondary in a couple spots that limited some of the disguises that we saw later in the year when the group got more time under their belt. Maybe they can pick up where they left off next year. They’ll be better off for it.

But I’m not particularly confident for all the reasons I mentioned when I said he should be fired.

Marcel Chris Chauvet: Do you think that you get could anything for Marcus Gilbert in a trade? He’s only got one year left on his deal and he has a history of injury, but he’s got a very low number in that year for a pretty good player. I’m still not sure he has a market, but maybe you have some insight.

Alex: Probably not. For the reasons you mentioned. And if teams know you’re trying to trade him, that means you’re cutting him. The only reasons I can see a team trading for him is to have the rights to him, not have to fight in free agency, and maybe to avoid getting hurt by the comp formula? So a club could throw a 7th the Steelers way. But I’m not counting on it.

ImMikeD: Hey Alex. Are you for Jesse James returning and at what price? If the Steelers choose to part ways with one or the other, do you go with Gilbert or Foster (how much $) staying, or both, or neither?

Alex: I definitely am. Bring Jesse back on a 2 year/6 million deal, or 3 year/9 million, and I’m all for it. Have some stability on a team that doesn’t have much of it.

I’d dump Gilbert before Foster. I want Foster back. But that obviously depends on price. There’s a ceiling there too. I’m not going above $5 million per year with him.

The Tony: 

Alex,

Do you have a top 5 current Steelers who are entering free agency that you believe will be retained? How would you rank them in order of importance? I would have assumed Hilton would be close to the top of the list but it appears the Steelers have soured on him. Foster is going to be interesting to watch as well

Alex: You mentioned Hilton so you have me a little confused, Tony. Hilton is an exclusive rights free agent, basically guaranteeing him back with the team in 2019. They put the tender on him (they will), and he’s back. Just like any of the ERFAs. And the team will tender B.J. Finney, one of their two RFAs. Xavier Grimble is the other. He may return but won’t be tendered.

It’s hard to know who will come back. Money is the driving factor. I think Jesse returns. I think Coty returns. I hope Foster returns but I’m not sure if that’s going to happen. Alualu and Berry likely return. Ditto with Fort, at least I hope. Maybe he wants to go somewhere else, see if he can find more stable playing time. Chickillo should come back on the cheap too, I’d imagine.

PittShawnC: 

Hi Alex,
Looking forward to 2019
-we have three games on the west coast (haven’t won multiple times in a season there since 1984, 2-9 since 2001)
-at NE (0-5 vs Brady there)
-home vs the Rams, Sea, Indy (all solid playoff teams)
-tougher AFCN

Is the franchise looking down the barrel of another playoff-less season? (yes, I know it’s only January)

Alex: Yeah…I’m not going to wave the white flag in January. Things will be tough, you’re right about the North, but who knows. I don’t pay much mind to the schedule. So much changes year to year. Let’s see how the offseason plays out. A critical couple of months coming up. We’ll go from there.

Bob Francis: A few basic questions about the Steelers defense. First, how would you charatcerize the Steelers main scheme? Basically, what defense do they run? Second, is what Butler does simple or complex? The MMQB podcast made the point that several of the remaining playoff teams run pretty predictable defensive schemes. The benefit of that, per Andy Benoit, is that players know their roles and you can improve over the course of a season. Plus, if you have injuries, players can plug and play more easily. I guess I’m wondering how teams with inferior talent at some position groups can still manage to hold their own. Are the Steelers struggles more about scheme or talent?

Alex: They might seem basic but those are some in-depth answers. This defense is evolving so it’s hard to peg it as one thing. Sort of a new age LeBeau defense. A blend of Carson and LeBeau. Carson ran Cover 2, LeBeau the fire zone. With how multiple the looks have become, the different groupings, I can’t call it “one” thing.

Like any defense, some of it is simple. Some, more complex. I’d still put it closer to simple than complex. Especially early in the year where you have a lot of young guys trying to figure it out while playing fast. More gets added during the year.

I don’t know what “predictable defensive schemes” mean. The issues are both scheme and talent.

Grant Humphrey: Hey Alex,
Suppose the Steelers do end up trading Ab. What would you do to try to replace that production? Obviously a guy like Ab is irreplaceable but you have to try your best to get some of that production back.

Alex: Probably a mid-round draft pick. JuJu becomes the main guy, you hope Washington takes a big leap, and use scheme more than ever to get guys open. Won’t be easy to replace AB. You never will, in all honesty. I don’t think there’s a big secret to doing it. Same as you would replacing any high-end player.

Vance Mac: Probably haven’t looked at FAs yet. But a guy that was talked about last year, Tre Boston, should be available again. Interested?

Alex: Not so much. Safety is lower on my needs and I don’t see Boston in that dime/hybrid role. Unless they want to start moving Edmunds around. Weird the guy has been on a bunch of one-year deals, can’t find a home in one place. If he signs in Pittsburgh, it’d be his 4th team in four years. On the surface, that’s a red flag.

Tom White: 

Ok Alex let’s play kill (cut), f**k (can only keep short term), marry (sign long term 4+ years) but using football. I will give you 2 groups of guys you have to label.

Group 1: Hargrave, Hilton, Sutton
Group 2: Connor, JuJu, Watt

Alex: Ok, let me state for the record I am uncomfortable with the nature of this exercise.

Group 1:

Marry – Call me Mrs. Hargrave. I think he’s the no-brainer choice here.
Kill – Sutton. Because I like Hilton more. Though the team might be going in the other direction.
F – Hilton. Still really like him as the slot corner, even if he ended the year much worse than how he began it.

Group 2:

Marry – Gotta be JuJu. Much tougher decisions here but this dude is a superstar. He’d be the one who got away if I kicked him out of bed.
Kill – Conner. Which sucks. But comes down to positional value. OLB > RB
F – Watt. Swap Watt and Hilton and I think you would’ve given me some really tough decisions.

Aj Gentile: Alex would you draft a tight end in the middle rounds this year? It seems like a good tight end group and we don’t know what will happen with James.

Alex: Doubtful. If you lose James, it becomes a larger possibility. But I’m assuming (for now), he’ll return. With so many other needs to worry about (corner, ILB, OLB, DL depth, dime backer, wide receiver, running back) I can’t justify using a 3rd/4th round pick on a probable #3 tight end.

Ichabod: Alex, if AB plays for Steelers this year, what are his contract and cap implications for 2020

Alex: You can check out Brown’s contract info at Over the Cap. 

2020. $11.3 million base salary. $18.3 cap number. Save $4.26 million if you dump him.

Spencer Krick: 

Hey Alex!

Do you think the Steelers double dip on CB’s in the draft?

Alex: Hey Spencer! It’s possible. I don’t think they usually go into a draft saying “we gotta get two of this position.” Probably ends up being a value thing. Where there’s sort of a need but there’s also a player ranked high enough to justify it.

It does tend to happen with more draft picks. Odds naturally increase. Steelers only have seven picks right now and lots of needs. So less likely.

Hdmartinez: Alex, can you give me three good reasons to justify keeping Butler? I can only think of one and that is sacks, I don’t know what he has done to earn another year. Can you give me some examples that way I can feel a little more excited about 2019. I’m feeling real bleak about our outlook right now if he returns. Thanks

Alex: Wish I could man. I don’t know. I guess they just put the blame on the lack of talent and want to give it another crack in 2019. They can look at some of the overall numbers and I guess feel comfort in that. But you guys know I disagree. So…

Matt Meyer: Over/Under on new starters next year? Gilbert/Foster/Burns gone. AB/Dupree possibly gone. Bostic and Burnett gone maybe?

Alex: Think you’ll see…

1. One new starting ILB
2. One new starting corner
3. One new starting dimebacker
4. One new slot corner? Sutton over Hilton? Maybe.
5. One new starting right tackle.
6. One new starting left guard (maybe, depends on Foster)
7. One new starting OLB (I can hope).

Yup, lot of possible changes. In reality, probably see 3-4 of those actually come true.


That’s all for this week. Really fun chat everyone. Appreciate you stopping by.

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