Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

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Welcome back to the mailbag. Even though the offseason is underway, we’re plenty busy. Free agency and draft preview, prepping for the Senior Bowl (Daniel Valente and I will be there in two weeks), and everything inbetween. So glad you’re sticking around with us.

We’re here for the next hour to answer whatever is on your mind.

To your questions!

Michael James: Hey Alex, state your picks for this weekends divisional round and your conference champions/Super Bowl pick.

Alex: I haven’t thought about it much for this weekend. I’ll figure out my answers for tomorrow’s show. But my Super Bowl prediction remains unscathed because I took the cowards way out and picked teams with bye weeks last week. Have the Chiefs over the 49ers.

John Hinton: Given the situation, what are your thoughts on the most pressing needs in the draft and potentially free agency?

Alex: Remains largely unchanged but still subject to change once the team starts making moves. Working under the assumption Bud stays, Hargrave/Davis leaves, Foster is cut, you gotta go with TE, DT, IOL, and safety. Not sure exactly how I would order it, and you address it based on value/fit, but those are the top four to me. Could always go outside those positions, again, all depends on the value and the grade, but that’s my starting point.

Andrew Black: 

Hey Alex,

If you’re the Steelers you take a safety early this year? Edmunds has been the weak link on our defense, and I know you’re adamant about the wait and see method like Bud Dupree, but with the defense being at a high caliber, we need someone back there that helps solidify it in my opinion. Seemed like teams started going after his side towards the end of the season.

Alex: It’s all going to depend but yes, safety should be higher on people’s list than it is. I was shocked by how the position was so utterly ignored last season. And now you’re feeling the consequences of it. Really nothing known behind Fitzpatrick and Edmunds aside from Jordan Dangerfield, a talented special teamer but someone who long ago reached his ceiling.

It’s not even just about challenging Edmunds. I don’t think that’s the teams intention, though point taken about his struggles. There’s a reason why according to my charting, Edmunds was targeted about double what Fitzpatrick was. But in today’s NFL, you better be – at least – four deep at corner and three deep at safety. Need injury replacements or else you’re exposed and your scheme shifts to try to compensate. Need to be able to play sub-package, need to be able to play sub after injuries strike or your defense is hamstrung.

Team has that four at CB: Haden, Nelson, Hilton, Sutton, and hopefully Layne can given them a fifth in time. At safety. Fitzpatrick, Edmunds…not much else.

Yes, Sutton has been the dime player but what if a corner goes down? Any of them, really. Sutton gets moved up, now you can’t run dime. Changes your defense. So safety depth is critical and I hope they address it relatively early. Within their first couple of picks. Can’t ignore it again.

HinesWardFan: There were several reasons our offense looked horrible back in week one. If you could pick one reason as the main cause, which would it be ❓

Alex: Oh man, in Week One? Feels like forever go. Just being bad in short-yardage/red zone situations. I forget what they were but it was ugly. The Moncrief drop, I think they got stuffed on a 3rd down run, red zone failings when the game was still sorta competitive. Terrible game all around but especially when it came to situational football.

Steeley Dan: Hi Alex! It’s unfortunate, but it looks like Hargrave will depart. Is this position best filled in the draft, or is there a low-cost FA that might fit the bill?

Alex: I haven’t looked at a FA list yet. We’ll talk about that a little closer to the start of free agency. I advocated for Mike Pennel last year. Didn’t happen but he’s in KC and really helped strengthen their run defense. I wouldn’t mind taking a look at him as a low-cost option. Thrown out other bigger names like Andrew Billings and Michael Pierce but I think it’s going to cost simply too much money. So the draft might be your best way to go about it. The guy I wrote about this morning, Neville Gallimore, is very interesting and similar to Hargrave coming out, though far less productive.

HinesWardFan: Other than getting on with his life’s work, what can Conner do to get less injury prone?

Alex: That’s very hard for me to say. I’m not an expert on any of those things. Maybe he needs to do more yoga, more activity that focuses on stretching and soft tissue stuff. Maybe even work a little less intense during the offseason. He seems to go hard at it every year, which obviously has a lot of value, but I wonder if that’s additional wear and tear he can’t afford to have. It’s a fine line to walk, I know. Maybe it’s a change in diet, sleep, who knows, but I would explore all options.

But I would just recommend him getting with S&C coach Garrett Giemont and coming up with a really good plan.

knoxly: How would you describe the steelers offensive style? What offenses does it share similarities? air raid, run and shoot, etc.

Alex: That’s pretty hard for me to try to capture right now. I’d have to look closer at Fichtner’s coaching tree. Who he learned from. I think very broadly, you can call it an “Erhardt-Perkins” type of system. Here’s how one site described it.

“The object of the system was to maximize efficiency in cold weather. They placed emphasis on the run game and the short passing game by showing the defense multiple looks, formations, and combinations of personnel while running simple plays found in all playbooks. Simple to learn, simple to run, easy to call on the fly, hard to defend.”

I think the Steelers have gotten away from that style a bit, that was more true under the Whisenhunt/early Ben days but there’s still a core element to it. I would like to see routes be a little more conceptual in nature. My constant critique of Fichtner (and Haley too) has been routes can be too independent of each other, which worked well enough when you had some of the top level WR talent the Steelers have had. A little less so in 2019 with a bunch of young guys trying to find their way.

EdJHJr: After living through the AB saga, Bell saga. What stops a guy like Lamar from holding out , let’s say next year. The rational is if he sits out , I think he’s fined? But this guy if he keeps it up ( I’m not sure on that) is looking at 40m per year. No??

If he gets hurt , say Bridgewater style he’s got a 40m to 100m dollar in his pocket issue.

Alex: The issue for those things guys is if he sits out an entire year, he won’t accrue a season. Which means the year doesn’t count and he doesn’t get any closer to free agency. Bell got to sit out, didn’t accrue the season, but it didn’t matter because he had accrued enough to be an unrestricted free agent. So Jackson doing that now simply wouldn’t work.

And most guys want to play. They want to win. They want to be paid, of course, as they should be, but this is the most competitive landscape in football. That’s why guys play through grueling injuries. Why Zach Ertz went out there and basically literally risked his life in the playoffs. There’s a case to be made players should be encouraged not to do that but the reality is guys want to help their team. They’re part of the group, something bigger than just themselves, and want to be apart of that.

Sure, you always risk guys having the diva attitude. Players will sit out. But most aren’t wired that way so I think those concerns are minimal. And again, for guys on their rookie deals, simply not a viable option.

stan: I loved watching Bud play in 2019 too, but this was clearly a contract year push. I don’t get why everyone’s trying to give him $50M of the Steelers’ salary cap space. Am I the only one who remembers that last year at this time everyone on this site considered his 2019 contract a huge mistake?

Alex: Understood but if teams can’t evolve as the facts/play evolves, then what are they doing? So long as there are legitimate reasons why Dupree played well, and those go beyond just “contract year,” (and there are several), then you pay the guy if you think the production will sustain. He’s in his prime, coming off a great year, a super well-rounded game at a premier position. Those are the guys I want to pay.

The Tony: Alex,
Looking back the past 10 first round picks for the Steelers, how would you rank them by their talent level and impact they have had as a Steelers player.

Alex: Alright, I’ll give it a shot. 2009-2019. I’m just going to rank it as a catch-all, best to worst.

1. Heyward
2. DeCastro
3. Watt
4. Pouncey
5. Shazier
6. Dupree
7. Bush
8. Edmunds
9. Hood
10. Jarvis
11. Burns

Figuring out where to slot Watt was tough. Heyward, Pouncey, DeCastro all have the long-term and sustained resume but you know Watt is special and I am fully confident he’ll still be ultra-productive years from now. Put him over Pouncey only because from a “results based” outlook, Pouncey has missed time with injuries. Not his fault but dings him just a bit.

Heyward at #1 just because of that consistent excellent. When I think of a Steeler, I think of a dude like Cam Heyward.

Shazier is obviously an amazing talent. Hood was a decent player in the wrong scheme, you see his staying power in the NFL, and Jarvis at least had a memorable moment or two that puts him over Burns.


Hi Alex! thought you might have some insight into this. How much of the playbook is available on gameday? Don’t they typically work from a smaller set that is the “gameplan” with perhaps some new stuff installed that week.

If that is how it generally works, how much do you think the OC was limited by all the inexperienced skill players in being able to call a play say from 4 weeks ago, but wasn’t specifically in the gameplan for the week? I’d think with Ben, and mostly vet guys, they could easily do that.

Alex: That’s a very thoughtful question I don’t know if I can answer fully. I think your general framing is correct. I imagine the whole playbook is available in theory but there’s a “menu” they’re working off week-to-week. The stuff they repped the most in practices, what works best against that particular defense, the plays they pick out each week. Favorites for third down, red zone, “gotta have it” type moments. And that can change. But you have to be flexible and light on your feet so I don’t think anything is really off limits.

Yes, I think to say having those inexperienced QBs limits your freedom to work “off script.” I’ve pointed that out a ton. That’s critical perspective and context to mention when talking about this offense. And I think that’s one reason why they struggled so much with blitz pickup and protections and hots. QBs just didn’t have the knowledge or ability to counter it. There’s less checks, less tempo, less ability to react what defenses are doing like you would have with Ben. There is no ability to go to say, JuJu and go “Hey, remember that play we ran two years ago against Detroit? Let’s do it here.” Not on the table.

And that is very limiting, no doubt.

Jeff Dudash: 

Alex, bit of a Moneyball question for you: what position groups/skill sets do you believe are UNDERVALUED in the present-day NFL?

The Steelers are going to have to be creative this offseason with a limited budget and limited picks. I wonder if now is the opportunity to go against the grain and find way to incorporate talented players who are undervalued by modern schemes. Fullback, anyone?

Alex: I dunno, contracts are going up across the board as the salary cap rises. Positions like safety and tight ends, answers I may have given two years ago, are heating up too. I also don’t expect this coaching staff to suddenly turn into Billy Beane. Kevin Colbert seems to like analytics. The rest of the group? Ehhhh.

My first thought went to nickel corners but they’re even getting paid too. Skill sets is probably the better way to look at it but I don’t have any data on-hand I can point to, the way the Oakland A’s put on-base percentage above all else. Speed is always a winner in my book though. You can have all the technique and schemes you want. Nothing beats speed.

That’s all for this week. Thanks guys!


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