Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

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Welcome back to your weekly edition of the mailbag. Sure we’re all smarting from last week’s miserable loss. But the season is far from over and we’re marching towards an important Week 2 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks.

As always, we’re here for the next hour to answer whatever’s on your mind.

To your questions!

srdan: Should we worry?

Alex: Worrying is fine. Panic isn’t. But we know the history behind 0-2 teams making the playoffs. Odds aren’t good and Seattle is a tough team. This team has had terrible Week 1’s before and bounced back. And three of the AFC North teams lost. So there’s reason for optimism.

Hagen Rinde: why does Butler’s defense suck? Finally it’s his defense with his players….. Man, I would really like to see some improvement…. Sorry, worried, drunk and from Germany 🙂

Alex: Because players aren’t put in positions to succeed. A lack of talent can’t be an excuse. There is some youth, some inexperience, so it isn’t all on Butler. But overall, the players just aren’t in winnable matchups and the Steelers feel like they’re at a coaching disadvantage every week.

I don’t want to forget about the optimism we had heading into the season. The defense is better. They’re faster, more experienced (once Davis is healthy, especially) and more versatile. They can produce turnovers this year. Still hopeful about that. Hopefully Week One was simply just them at their lowest point earlier in the year than most other teams.

Anthony Palmerston: Hey Alex, has there been anyone actually asked why it appears James Washington chose to go out of bounds when it looked like he could have kept going? I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that this week. I know someone said they think they’ve seen him do that before last year, but I’m wondering was he (or Tomlin or Ben) specifically asked?

Alex: Not that I’m aware of. I guess his momentum carried him out but you’re right, it was strange.

Matt Manzo: Hey Alex!
How did you feel about the way Connor was used last week?

Alex: Not a ton to go off of. I don’t hate perimeter runs in principle. But when you’re facing a fast flow defense like New England that got burned by it last year, good luck trying to make it work again. Besides that, with the game flow, hard to get him involved too terribly much. Hopefully more to go off of this week.

Lukesaenz: Based on what you saw on film, if we circle back to NE in the playoffs, how are we playing this team differently if Butler and Fichtner are deferring to AK? What’s your winning game plan on defense? On offense?

Alex: I’ll think about that if/when we get to it. Burning last week’s gameplan is probably a good place to start. Having better answers vs empty, scheming receivers open better, getting downhill in the run game. All simple places to start.

Spencer Krick: Why on earth is communication STILL the main issue on this defense? Where is the problem?

Alex: I thought Dave made a really good point on Wednesday’s practice. That we just chalk up this annual Week One woes, shrug our shoulders and go “eh, it happens.” We shouldn’t be so accepting over it. It’s not acceptable.

But to answer, there is youth at some key spots. ILB with Devin Bush. FS with Kameron Kelly. Two central communicating positions manned by guys making their NFL debut. Mark Barron is new. The defense hasn’t played many snaps as a singular unit. But again, not an excuse. It’s frustrating.

Ryan: Do you think that Diontae Johnson looked somewhat impressive? I just think his route running and quickness stood out

Alex: Agreed, it did. Route running, burst, even some strength and YAC ability that I didn’t see coming was evident. Great stop/start player who can shake man coverage and string together multiple moves in a route. If Moncrief doesn’t pick it up, Johnson could start cutting into his playing time.

Dan: What would you like to see from the Steelers offense? Not just simply “be better” or more consistent, but if you were given these players and told to scheme, how would you do it?

Alex: That’d be a too involved answer for the timeframe we have right now. And I’m willing to give it more than one week. I don’t want to be kneejerk to one game. Want to see a couple games, maybe the first month, and see what the central ideas/changes are, and go from there. But they’re going to have to use better route combinations and not make them so independent of each other, because these receivers aren’t good enough to get open on their own, besides JuJu.

Aeronius D. McCoy: Acknowledging that the game has evolved in the last decade, why is it that Roethlisberger/Fichtner seem to favor shotgun formations and/or empty sets in short yardage situations? This has been going on for years, even back to Haley, so I’m not referring to the frustration Fichtner might have felt early in the NE game.

Do you think Roethlisberger prefers to take snaps from the shotgun significantly more so than from under center?

Alex: I’m guessing that’s his preference. Less mobility in his older age and I’m guessing Ben likes to keep vision on the defense, not turning his back the way he would when playfaking under center. But it’s an obvious criticism of this offense, how infrequent they use it, and a fair point to make. It should be used more.

John: Every year seems similar: 1. Start slow, 2. Find our stride, 3. lose crucial games we ought easily to win, 4. back our way into the playoffs 5. Fail to reach the Super Bowl. And each and every year I am left wondering, is it the players or the coaches? If it’s the players, is it our evaluation process? Which part? Is it our GM, in that case? If it’s the schem, the coaches, AND the players, then who is held responsible? In short, I’m not sure what’s wrong, but what do you think? Would you like to see significant changes if we struggle this year, or if we do JUST well enough to stop the bleeding, and if so, where?

Alex: I think that can be attributed to everyone. An organizational problem. Front office, coaches, players. Hard to boil down some big, long-standing issues like that to just one area. I’ll let this year play out before thinking about any significant changes, though you guys know how I feel about someone like Keith Butler still being the DC.

Jamie Barnhart: Good afternoon, sir.
Questions about the game:
1) Isn’t one of the advantages of going 5 wide to spread the defense? A disadvantage is that you are telegraphing pass. Since it’s hard to spread the defense in a crowded goal line situation, isn’t it foolish to go 5 wide in that situation?
2) Play action passing on occasion has its advantages. Why don’t the Steelers use it?
3) New England puts 2 backs in the backfield with evil intentions. Why don’t the Steelers?
4) Why do the Steelers like to let players roam freely, both under and over their coverage?
Some of this is a little facetious, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these Steelers tendencies. Thanks!


1. Yes, that’s an advantage and disadvantage. I don’t mind it though. “Pass” only tells you so much and today’s NFL gives you a million options. It also forces defenses to telegraph if they’re blitzing or not. So it can cut both ways. Just go out and execute. You have a top 3 offensive line, first ballot Hall of Famer, a stud #1 WR, a great #1 TE, and some receivers you’ve invested draft capital/money in. They should be able to throw the ball.

2. Wish I knew on playaction. Think Ben just likes to work out of the gun.

3. The Steelers actually did it twice Sunday. But New England just problem solves better than Pittsburgh or for that matter, any other team in the league.

4. I don’t think that’s an accurate assessment.

The Pittsburgh Steelers: Biggest concerns for the steelers on the Seahawks defense and offense?

Alex: Haven’t watched Seattle’s defense yet. Tonight. On offense, they ran a lot of playaction against the Bengals, an area the Steelers struggled to defend last week. So that may be near the top. Metcalf is also a freak and these CBs gotta contest better at the catch point.

Jeff Papiernik: Did WR just move significantly up your draft board after watching week 1? I was thinking S, OLB, and TE would be our 3 biggest needs, but now I’m thinking we need another JuJu out there.

Alex: I’m not thinking about draft needs now, to be honest. Lot of young receivers in Johnson and Washington and we’ll see what Moncrief does the rest of the way. Lot can change from now until then. Focus is on how to win with the receivers this team currently has.

Keith Evans; this offensive line is very mediocre at run blocking and the coaches know it, that’s why we aren’t trusted to run the ball well in short yardage situations. agree/disagree?

Alex: I don’t think that’s accurate even if I agree this is a better pass blocking unit than run blocking. This line is good enough to give a power back like Conner enough room to dive ahead on 3rd and short.

Steel Your Face: Hey, Alex – Is there a way to mitigate or ‘stop’ Brady from throwing those 7 yard ins that he’s protected the last 18 years? Seems like if they had multiple people in the area it’d be difficult to complete 20 of those a game but I know I’m missing something. Many thanks.

Alex: It’s tough. You stop that, they hit you with something else. But goal is to try and be physical at the LOS, disrupt the timing of the route, and allow pressure to get home. Philosophy you can apply to a lot of quarterbacks and offenses, really.

Steeley Dan: Alex: While Ben wasn’t great last week, how did you feel about the play calling? Was it OK, just with poor execution (overthrows, drops, etc). I feel like the playcalling was kind of disjointed overall.

Alex: No, it was not good. I don’t think anyone thinks it was. And I would think and hope Fichtner would be the first to recognize the struggles. Team put up three points. That’s a reflection on execution but also playcalling when things are that bad.

John: I presume one reason the Steelers are slow starters during each year is because their coordinators are not incentive. They do not think outside the box much. Plus when they add new things, it seems the players mess them up so it winds up being a blown coverage. After a few weeks, it becomes clearer on film what opponents are doing and thus it is easier for even basic coordinators to game plan and figure ways to compete against what the opponents are doing. Do you agree?

Alex: I don’t know what you mean by “not incentive” but I understand your point about them struggling without film to go off of. Of course, it’s an issue every team deals with so I don’t know why the Steelers struggle more out of the gate than other teams.

Jimbo: Alex, You could call a gameplan better than butts or sphinx. You have written a few Articles detailing the poor excuse for D coaching with detailed analysis. Makes me wonder why the Rooneys dont realize it.

Alex: To be fair, let’s call a spade or spade. It’s a lot easier for me to sit back with the benefit of hindsight and call balls and strikes than it is to gameplan, prepare, and actually execute in-game. Just want to be honest about that.

But I try to be fair. I praised Butler as much as anyone for the gameplan he put together against the Patriots last year. Recognized not all the issues Sunday were his fault. A good DC can’t overcome poor communication. And some of the things he’s done well over the years. I still don’t think any DC schemes his ILB blitzes better than Butler does. Which makes sense given he was a LB and coached the position for more than a decade. But get into the secondary and coverages and you get into trouble.

John Gutilla: Not really a question, but just wanted to say that I had essentially the same surgery (a partial meniscectomy to repair a torn meniscus) that Ola had at roughly the same time, and I’ve made more or less a full recovery in that time. For him, with a professional training staff and quality rehab, I’m sure he’s at 100% by now. Just food for thought.

Alex: I’m glad you’re fully recovered. Thanks for sharing the perspective. Ola is healthy. Not on the injury report, played on special teams. But if the team couldn’t bother to give him even a couple snaps in a 33-3 blowout loss with Watt hurt and out of the game, I don’t know when he’s actually going to get the chance to play. It’ll take a long-term injury. Which sucks.

Andrew: What aspect/who poses the biggest threat to the Steelers this week against Seattle? Is it someone on Seattle or something more internal?

Alex: I still have more tape study to get into. But similar to what I wrote before, their use of playaction could be effective. Gotta stop the run to beat these guys, that’s what their offense is centered around, and that can make yourself vulnerable to playfakes. They have WRs to win in space.

Read783 (Good Juju!): Fire Keith Butler?

Alex: You guys know what I wrote last year. Instead, he took on more responsibility. But I’m not focused on firing anyone now. That’s not going to happen this week or next week or the next one. Just focused on solving the problems that currently exist.

D-Ville Tommy: I’m a little concerned with Moncrief’s broken finger. Sammie Coates broke his finger and was not able to play through it with any success. Your thoughts on whether or not this is going to be a big hurdle for Moncrief?

Alex: Sure, it could be an issue. I mean, clearly it is. And it’s not something that heals quickly, I imagine, especially if you’re never resting it. He’s catching passes every day. Something he’s going to have to overcome, definitely.

Wreckless: Playing devil’s advocate a bit here, but do you think the reason that we saw Switzer and Moncrief playing more that JW was because of his relatively limited route tree? I don’t agree with their decision, but it just seems like they only have him run a few different routes and they preferred the other receiver’s versatility over Washington’s actual results.

Alex: There is obviously the aspect of them playing different positions. Switzer slot, Moncrief X, Washington Z. And if they want JuJu on the outside, then Switzer’s gonna come in to play the slot. I get that. But all offseason, they’ve talked about how Washington has varied his route running and become a more complete, versatile player.

So their words and actions haven’t always meshed with Washington. Which is a bit strange and slightly concerning.

Tom White: 

Alex I know your feelings on Keith Butler but at what point do you start to point the finger at Tomlin for allowing Keith Butler to be what he is? I understand players have to execute, and coordinators do their thing and it is a lot to manage but isn’t it the coaches job to recognize where things aren’t going well and change it? We keep saying Keith Butler needs a better gameplan but Tomlin comes from a defensive background and either has stepped in and done just as poorly or needs to step in and for some reason refuses to.

This isn’t a fire Tomlin question but more….Philosophical I guess. What is the deal?

Alex: A fair point to make, Tom. Buck stops with Tomlin. And they chose to keep Butler in a year where it would’ve made a lot of sense to fire him. So whatever happens is on Butler for him being the coach but sure, Tomlin clearly felt Butler did well enough to stick around. And if goes south again, it’ll prove to be the wrong decision and the head coaches bears responsibility for that.

That’s all for this week. Thanks guys!

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