Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

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Welcome back to the mailbag. Glad you could join us this Thursday afternoon. As always, we’re here for the next hour. Quick programming note. Not sure if we’ll have a mailbag next Thursday since I will be in Mobile covering the Senior Bowl. If we do, it may not be as its normal time, could be later in the day, so just a heads up.

To your questions!

falconsaftey43: Hi Alex. We know they want to fix the run game, and it’ll be a focus per Rooney’s comments. What do you think are the top two things they need to do to best position the team to have a better rushing attack in 2020?

Alex: Whew, hitting me with some tough questions early. The issues felt so multiple. From a personnel standpoint, there were obvious problems. Injuries in the backfield, a line that didn’t play great (and has always been geared towards pass protection moreso than run blocking).

I thought a fundamental issue was partially miscommunication, having the numbers to block things up but guys not following out their assignments, and doing a poor job of climbing to the second level. So many runs ruined by LBs, which should’ve been blocked, running free in the second level and plugging gaps. You turn even, say, five of those chances into really positive plays, and you might come away with a better feeling about this unit overall for the year. Don’t forget, there was a stretch where they ran for 120+ yards in three straight games (granted, it was partially a volume/winning thing, the average wasn’t super strong) for the first time in five years. Something fewer than half the league – 13, to be exact – accomplished this season.

So they were capable of running the football. Just not consistently enough. I think to the latter, not being able to execute second level blocks, were part a talent/personnel issue and part a scheme problem. Here’s a video breaking it down after the first Browns’ game.

PghSDF: Do you think Finney will be signed. I have my doubts after seeing him not playing in Rams.

Alex: I don’t. I don’t know where you get the money from. If you’re cutting Foster to clear cap space so you can tag Dupree, Finney eats that money right back up and you’re back to where you started. And the idea of cutting him to keep Finney isn’t going to sit well in the locker room and those dynamics are a component you have to consider.

Pat McAfee semi-recently shared a story about his time with the Colts and management handling AQ Shipley. Here’s the start of the clip but I’ll transcribe a bit of it below.

“AQ Shipley was a well-liked guy in that locker room…but there was money being given to another person at the same exact position…whenever that trade happened the entire team was like, what the hell is going on here. There was almost like a mini revolt inside the locker room.”

There are some differences in that situation to this one, McAfee says Shipley was playing much better than the other guy (though is Finney a serious upgrade – as you said, they didn’t trust him vs LA) but you get the point. To cut a veteran, well-liked and respected to give the money to someone else just isn’t the way I expect this franchise to handle things. Especially given the tight cap situation when they can shift Feiler to LG, where he is arguably better than Foster or Finney, and let Okorafor finally get the nod, or at least the chance, at RT.

So short answer is I expect Finney to play elsewhere.

treeher: Alex, with the QB situation last season, why didn’t the team hire a QB coach? Was Ben a default QB coach?

Alex: A fair question. I think they just thought Ben would be Ben, who works with Fichtner but doesn’t need much management (he was a QB coach to himself) and that would allow Fichtner and Matt Symmes to work with the younger guys. Then the room fell apart and an already stressful situation became worse by not having enough cooks in the kitchen and Fichtner trying to put out fires, not even having time to really teach and develop.

If Ben stayed healthy, they would’ve managed and been fine and probably not hired a QBs coach. But the situation exposed that decision so now they’re course-correcting.

knoxly: Could our defense be better next year if ben and the offense can produce more leads for them? It seemed like our defense was up against it almost always never had any room for failure.

Alex: Sure, having a stronger offense that can put up points takes some of the pressure off the defense. It certainly doesn’t hurt. As you said, creates a feeling where the defense doesn’t have to make every single play, though to counter that, I think the defense knowing they had to make those plays made them all the more motivated.

Still, Ben returning is good for all parties involved.

Kevin Gobleck: Alex, what are your thoughts on signing someone like Karl Joseph this year for depth/push Edmonds?

Alex: I can certainly see the connection. Steelers had interest in him coming out and that’s often a link to their free agent decisions. I know he had a tough start to his career, got better towards the end, so I’m not sure where he stands now in terms of value/role.

I have done very little in looking towards free agency right now. I’ll explore that at some point in the future and will have my free agency wishlist in March. You can expect it to be a lot less exciting than last years. The only name that I’ve gravitated towards in Dallas’ Jeff Heath. He’s undergoing shoulder surgery and I think that will help lower his value and teams may wait for him to get healthy to sign, which will help the Steelers.

srdan: In 21 playoff games, Ben has 30 tds and 24 picks. That doesn’t exactly make me feel warm and fuzzy about his comeback. I know he will be an improvement over this years QB play, and I see us winning more regular season games and making the dance. But watching the QBs last weekend, I’m not sure I am happy about this comeback as some. Should I be more optimistic? Can they get him to play to the team defensive strength?

Alex: I don’t get caught up in those numbers too much. His last playoff game had him throw five touchdowns, only one pick, and put up 42 points.

Ben isn’t an elite level QB. He’s not top of the class. But he’s the best thing this team has – by far – and still playing at a really high level. Yes, you need to be more optimistic. Because Ben will also have the best defense he’s had basically since their last Super Bowl runs and that puts this team in strong position to make one last push.

Basically, I would ask, if not Ben, who would you realistically want? Who else has a better chance to take this team farther than him? It’s a short list and those names who are on it are unattainable.

steeltown: Kozora- If you had it your way, what position are you drafting at #49

Alex: This is the #1 question I get asked. And I simply don’t have a good answer. There isn’t that super, smack-you-in-the-face position like there was with ILB last season. The way I view it, and I’ve always talked about it, is finding where value intersects best with need.

So no, it’s not a strict “BPA” thing like you hear a lot of people talk about. It’s nonsense. But this far out, especially with extra uncertainty not having a first round pick, it’s impossible to lock it down to one position. Assuming Bud is back, Hargrave is gone, here are my top four needs. In no order.

1. Nose tackle
2. Tight end
3. Interior Offensive Line
4. Safety

So you’re probably going to find the best player at one of those positions. That doesn’t exclude other positions, maybe a WR is so talented that he’s too good to pass up, or some other position, but that’s my general approach heading into the offseason.

Brian Tollini: Does signing Dupree long-term for big money seem a bit concerning to you after only 1 year of production? Is the franchise tag this year, then attempt a long term deal next year if warranted the better option?

Alex: No, it doesn’t. I don’t see Woodley 2.0. Dupree has always been a high effort player. Motor was never his issue when he struggled in previous years. I really think health was the underlying problem. Za’Darius Smith in Green Bay is doing pretty well after the Packers gambled on him, who had a similar career arc. And a former teammate of Dupree, no less.

Yeshaya: Hey Alex. Does Danny Smith (for life!) have any assistant coaches under him? If he doesn’t, is that something the Steelers might consider to help fix some of our special team issues?
Smith is great at scheming kick coverage and punt blocks, but the kick return is lousy (I know it’s not all his fault). If the offensive and defensive coordinators have 3 or 4 assistants working for them, is it worth hiring a ST assistant who can maybe focus exclusively on kick returns? Thanks and enjoy the Senior Bow

Alex: Not anyone dedicated, no. Not like Amos Jones years back. I know in camp, there are assistants helping out in drills which is common because the team always brings in extra helping hands during the summer to deal with the 90 man roster so they can maximize practice time. LBs and RBs may work on one drill to half the field with WRs and DBs working on another to the other. So you need multiple coaches to work through those.

But I don’t know if Smith has the same help in-season. I’m sure some of the assistants, Denzel Martin is coaching STs at the Shrine Game so I assume he’s doing that with the Steelers throughout the regular season, help out but no one official. I don’t think any team has a dedicated “kick return” coordinator.

srdan: If you could make gummy bears in any shape-what would it be? Luminas?

Alex: Ha, yes, Lumina shaped. And all the gummy bears would be broken in half. Just like the McLumina.

WeWantDaTruth: Hey Alex. How much do you like the idea of moving Feiler to LG and let Chuks & Banner battle it out for RT?

Alex: Yup, makes a lot of sense. Have talked about it on the podcast for awhile now. If Foster is gone, that’s their most likely move.

Tom White: 

Ok Alex 2 kind of trade off scenario questions from me:

1. I know you and Dave have talked about Bill Nunn getting into the hall. Let’s say in order for him to get in your had to sacrifice another Steelers who is in. Who you taking out to put him in? (If Cowher is an easy answer you can’t use him lol). And I understand you wouldn’t want to boot any Steelers but in this scenario you have to.

2. A listener had an email read on Wednesdays podcast about if it would be better to save the Dupree money to fill more roles and you were obviously behind keeping Dupree but it did make me think of a more direct scenario I was hoping for you to answer. If it was between A. keeping Dupree or B. Re-signing Hargrave, Finney, and Jesse James which of those 2 options would you go with?


1. Oh man, I don’t think me kicking anyone out of Canton would make me a popular guy, even if Nunn got in. I have no idea. If you made me choose, maybe Stallworth, but I couldn’t bring myself to actually kick someone out if I had that power. Unless like, Cal Hubbard counts, who played literally one game as a Steeler in 1936 but has the team listed in his bio.

I would still go option A. Finney and Jesse just don’t move the needle enough for me to dump Dupree.

Michael James: Looking at our players: Who do you think will get cut this offseason and which players do you think are overpaid at the moment?

Alex: Well they’re often one in the same. I think we know the names who could become cap casualties. Chickillo, Foster, Barron, and McDonald are all on the chopping block. Chickillo feels like the only certainty but the others could get a pink slip and it wouldn’t shock me.

Jon: Alex,
Say all things are the same. Except Ben Roethlisberger is back for the entirety of 2020/21 season. How many more games will they win?

Alex: Enough to get into the playoffs. Let’s quickly look back at the games they lost in 2019 and if they had Ben, ask ourselves if they would’ve won.

New England: Obviously had Ben so still a loss.
Seattle: Had Ben half the time, Rudolph played well in relief, threw two TDs. Defense couldn’t contain Wilson late. So I’ll keep this as a loss.
San Francisco: They win this with Ben. Defense forces five turnovers, they shouldn’t have lost it.
Baltimore: Obviously a good case to make to winning this one but I dunno, I could’ve seen Ben making some mistakes against Baltimore’s aggressive defense. And Hodges played well in relief and the game was tied because of Ola’s roughing the passer penalty and JuJu’s fumble in OT. So I’ll keep this as a loss.
Browns: So many chances to win that one. Down 14-7, on the Browns 30, late in the game. Ben’s winning that one.
Buffalo: Another win. Really the moment when defenses began exploiting the weakness and inability for them to pick up overload blitzes.
Jets: Same with the Bills game. A win.
Baltimore: More of a coin flip but with Baltimore resting starters, this is probably a win.

So I have the Steelers recording at least four more wins, five if you include the Ravens’ finale, which puts them at 12-4 instead of 8-8.

Chris Janssen: Canada our OC in waiting or just a guy?

Alex: That’s within the realm of possibility but still a ways away. While Ben is here, Fichtner is still the guy. Unless Ben signs off on it.

That’s all for this week. Thanks guys!

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