Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

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Welcome back to your weekly Thursday mailbag, answering your Steelers’ questions for the next hour. If only we had an upcoming game to discuss…

To your questions!

Steeler Money: Do you think the titans should have been forced to forfeit? What kind of precedent will moving the entire schedule around for one team’s outbreak set? This will happen again, and then what? What if it’s the Steelers? The precedent should be if you can’t field a team by Monday of game week you forfeit. Titans are in essence being rewarded by being the first team with an outbreak because the schedule right now is still flexible enough to adjust. That won’t be the case week 15 and at some point this year a team will be forced to forfeit a game. Unless their plan is for cancelled games to basically act as ties… bleh

Alex: I don’t. I understand that’s the instinct a lot of Steelers’ fans have but if the shoe was on the other foot and Pittsburgh had the outbreak, I promise no one would be saying the Steelers have to forfeit.

The reality is there aren’t any good answers here. Your questions are valid. I don’t have specific answers to each question. I think you try to move the schedule around as much as possible within its current confines and failing that, add a Week 18 to the regular season and push the playoffs (and Super Bowl) back one week like they did in 2001-2002 after 9/11.

But forfeiting games opens up a whole new issue. What if both teams have an outbreak? What if it’s a playoff game? The Super Bowl? Do the same rules apply?

You just handle this on an as-needed basis and hope most weeks are like the first two. Very uneventful with a low number of COVID tests. Perspective is important. As much as this sucks for Steelers/the fans, it’s one team seeing an outbreak through the first three weeks. Baseball didn’t cancel. The NFL won’t either unless there is absolutely no other option.

Pghomer: Hey Alex, thx again for taking the time. After looking at the all 22 What was the division of labor at the WR X after Diontae left with a concussion?. Any observations on what the team decided?. I know you thought juju would likely fill most of the snaps when this came up previously on the podcast.

Alex: They split things up pretty well. Lot of guys moving around. Despite the youth on the roster, there’s a good deal of experience. They were also in 13/22 personnel with one receiver on the field a bunch, 14 plays total according to our charting, with Claypool being the lone WR on all but one of those snaps (Washington had the other). So they were just packed in tighter than usual.

Eric Ebron was also used as the solo side receiver several times too. Reduce his split to the boundary and get him in a lot of one on one matchups because teams didn’t want to rotate or dedicate a safety to his side. So they got pretty creative with it because like you said, there isn’t a clear defined backup X receiver, though JuJu is still who I consider to be the backup.

CP72: AK,
I find it interesting the team keeps protecting Wendall Smallwood every week. Conner seems to be healthy. McFarland and Snell are two quality back ups. If they like him that much why not waive Samuels and promote him to 53? That would open up a slot on the practice squad.

Alex: I view him as Samuels insurance. Snell and McFarland are better runners but Smallwood is a better all around guy. Blocker (though Snell has gotten better at it and Samuels is obviously bad at it), receiver, returner, special teams guy. They still like Samuels more and Samuels is the more known guy but Smallwood is a versatile option as depth with Snell and McFarland a little more specialized…at least for now.

Plus, you gotta protect somebody. And he’s one of the better players on the practice squad. Someone who is more likely to be poached by other teams looking for RB help, especially knowing the slew of injuries naturally to the position and specifically this season.

Anthony Palmerston: Hey Alex! With the Steelers using so much zone defense last week to have extra eyes on Deshaun Watson, do you see that as their gameplan going forward against mobile QBs like Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes?

Alex: I do. You pretty much don’t have a choice. It’s very hard to play man against those mobile, elite QBs. Against any mobile QB, it’s an issue. You have less flexibility as a defense. You can’t drop eight in the red zone like they could against say, Brian Hoyer or Eli Manning. You don’t play as much man on third down because your DBs vision isn’t on the football. You have to be smarter about rush lanes, be less aggressive, concerned about stunting and asking a DE to contain. It works against the Steelers’ strengths. But you’re not left with much of a choice. Rush four, drop seven, play zone, and try to mix up and disguise your coverages. Better be very good at self-scouting and breaking your own tendencies. There are no easy answers.

Scott Prosser: Alex, prior to the midway point of last season, I had never heard that the Steelers offensive line “was not built for run blocking “. This became a very popular refrain that was stated repeatedly and universally throughout the off-season. Meanwhile in 2018, Conner, DeCastro, Pouncey, and Big Al represented the Steelers in the Pro Bowl. Where did this notion come from, how did it spread like wildfire, and is it essentially a false narratove?

Alex: I’m sure it was brought up before. Maybe the spotlight shined a little brighter because of their issues but there’s a nugget of truth. This group was built to protect Ben. Help extend his career. And the Steelers were, and still are, a passing team. Your number one goal is to keep your franchise QB upright and healthy, an area Roethlisberger struggled for a good portion of his career.

But you’re right that we don’t want to use that as a crutch and excuse why they aren’t run blocking effectively. They have a talented line, they have capable run blockers. DeCastro is one of the NFL’s best run-blocking guards. And they’re running it pretty well to start.

To answer your last question. I understand the point that’s made when people – or when I – say that. But that doesn’t give them a hall pass if the run game averages 3.1 yards per carry and have a low run success rate.

Alex Kuhn: The person who’s getting praise, deservedly, is Tyson Alualu. Just comparing his first 3 games to Javon Hargraves at the same position, who do you take? Also, is this Tyson just playing better or just given a chance and doing what he’s always been able to do?

Alex: Still Hargrave, though I’m not trying to take anything away from Alualu. Hargrave was just a freakier athlete. And again, don’t mean to downplay Alualu’s performance, he’s been awesome, but he has gone against a former tackle-turned center in the Giants’ Nick Gates and a rookie in Denver’s Lloyd Cushenberry. Did well but not as good vs Nick Martin and Houston last week.

Why is he playing better? That’s a good question. His traits aren’t any different. I did a video before the season showing how technical and strong he was against the run. His hand use, strength, leverage, ability to read and work off blocks with enough athleticism to flow down the line. He’s also facing centers more this year than guards so he’s working in more one-on-one situations against some smaller bodies, which probably helps for a bigger and stronger guy like Alualu. But whatever fountain of youth he found, he better bottle and sell.

WeWantDaTruth: Hey Alex! Any update on Wisniewski? Any ETA on his return?

Alex: Hey man! No update. Still on IR through this week so we’ll see what happens from there. Unless I’m reading the rules wrong, he can still spend longer than three games on IR. So it’s not a guarantee he comes off as soon as he’s eligible too.

stan: I’m really confused about this postponement. One of the Titans starters and three reserves have Covid and are out for at least a couple weeks. The Titans are locked out of their facilities for three days and will have to adjust their depth chart and game plan. Isn’t this exactly why the NFL is allowing expanded practice squads with protected players this year? A postponement might be workable in this case, but it won’t be in future weeks if (when) this happens again. So why aren’t the Steelers and Titans playing this week? At least on Monday or Tuesday? The only difference between their situation and that of the Texans and Vikings is that the Titans will be without 4 players.

Alex: Two issues. It’s less about the guys on the COVID list. It’s the continual new cases that are popping up. The virus can incubate for days, I believe up to a week, that means someone can test negative for several days before testing positive. If that lingered, the Titans would have fewer and fewer players and potentially have players who would’ve played in a Monday/Tuesday game against the Steelers test positive. Then you’re really risking an oubtreak.

The other factor is knowing these positive tests keep coming up, the Titans still can’t get together and practice even later this week or this weekend. I believe they will reevaluate things on Monday. So Tennessee wouldn’t have had any practice time and eventually, the NFL couldn’t keep pushing the game back. Tuesday was as far as it could go. So they had to postpone.

Again, no easy answers here. Lot of questions about how to handle this and potential future cases going forward. That’s the price of deciding to play football this season.

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