Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

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Welcome back to your weekly Steelers’ mailbag. Here to answer whatever is on your mind for the next hour.

To your questions!

@BenG_1994: What’s your story, Alex? How’d you get into writing? Depot? Football analysis?

Alex: Hey Ben. Thanks for the question. Dave reached out to me back in 2013 when I was still in college. I had done some writing for other sites, on several Steelers forums – first on ESPN, then SteelersUniverse – before joining Depot. And then became full-time once I graduated college in 2015. And here we are, ha.

In terms of football analysis, it’s what I’ve always done. In middle school, I would memorize the Steelers’ box scores. In high schools, I used my moms VCR player (yes, VCR, I still remember the click click of the tape rewinding) to rewatch Steelers games and take notes, just for myself, just for fun. So now I get to do the same – minus the VCR, thank God – as a job. And it’s been a terrific experience here with the site and talking with you guys.

David Rudin: Hey Alex,
How can the Steelers look so dominant on defense at times and yet get carved up in the passing game the last few weeks?

Alex: Because it’s hard to play defense in today’s NFL. You can’t pitch shutouts like the ’76 Steelers. Offenses are scoring more now (over 25 PPG) than any year before. It’s up three points from last season. Maybe that number comes down as the weather gets bad but they’re probably going to set another record. Every defense gives up points. The Colts had the #1 defense statistically heading into last week and got carved up by the Browns pretty good. I don’t want to use that as a crutch but I do think we have to set a realistic bar. Last year probably spoiled us a bit too. It was hard to match that performance exactly.

They’ve also played quality QBs the last two weeks. Watson is a stud and Wentz is really talented, though a little more inconsistent. And those guys are going to make plays.

If you want me to put my tinfoil hat on, I think there’s a little less pressure on this defense. They know the offense can move the ball, put up points. Last year, they knew every point, every yard mattered. They had to set the offense up with great field position, they had to take the football away. Sacks weren’t good enough. They needed to strip the ball too and I think Watt or Dupree admitted as much. Obviously, they’re not intentionally trying any less this season, I’m not questioning effort, but is there a subconscious component to Ben being back? I think you could argue there is.

Reg Sayhitodabadguy Hunt: Alwx K. The only thing that changed with the defense from last yr to this yr is the green dot on bushes helmet do you think that has anything to do with the miscommunication and poor performance we’re seeing especially on 3rd down

Alex: The thought was crossed my mind. And that could play a minor role. But some of the stuff can’t be easily put on Bush’s feet. When the secondary struggles to distribute a bunch set, that’s not on Bush. When Minkah and the CB miscommunicate on a Yankee concept, that’s not on Bush. So a lot of the time, I don’t see Bush wearing the green dot being the problem. Maybe a kernel of truth to it but leaning on that too much is painting with a broad brush.

James Cowan: 

Hey Alex,

I hope you’re well,

What have been your most positive and negative surprises about the Steelers through the first 4 weeks?

Alex: On the positive side, the first two things that come to mind are the play of young linemen like Dotson and Okorafor. They’ve been very, very good. Defensively, Tyson Alualu looks like an all-star. Had the stat in my charting. With him on the field, opposing offenses are averaging 0.78 yards per carry. That’s ridiculous.

On the negative side, the secondary isn’t playing as well as I hoped. Not panicking but the communication problems are surprising for a group that’s returning every single coach and every single starter.


I’m starting to get anxious about Minkah’s play this season. He’s hardly been around the ball and when he is, he doesn’t have nearly the same urgency that he had last year.

I think a good part of the blame is based on the fact that he’s been lining up so far from the ball. I get that they need him to play deep safety because Edmonds gets exposed deep in coverage, but if it turns Minkah into a mediocre player, can that be worth it?

Alex: It’s hard to pinpoint the issue but I don’t agree with the urgency/effort stuff. I think that’s us just searching for an answer and trying to come up with anything.

I don’t have the data on it but I definitely don’t see the centerfield stuff being an issue. If anything, he’s playing closer to the LOS in an effort to try to get him involved more. I could show dozens of examples. And it’s not about Edmunds playing FS, he rarely does. They’re spinning Hilton and more often, Sutton, to the deep half or deep middle. They’re trying to get Minkah more involved. It’s just not happening. Worth pointing out a lot of offenses big plays, including Fulgham last week, have come outside the numbers. Not all of them but most.


Hey Alex! Two questions:

Do you expect DeCastro, Pouncey and DJ will be ready to go this Sunday?

How best to block Myles Garrett?

Alex: I think Pouncey and Johnson will play. DeCastro, I’m less positive of. Coin flip in my mind right now. We’ll see what today’s practice report looks like. Hopefully he can be at least limited.

No easy answer on Garrett. Slide protection, alignment, and chipping are probably the three keys. Sliding the center towards him so the guard is more likely to help and to protect against any stunts/loops they’ll use to get him free. Alignment, putting the TE on that side more often to force him to align wider and the tackle more time to set. And of course, TE/RB chips can help slow him down too. And schematically, get the ball out quick. Something Roethlisberger has done really well over the last couple years.

NohSpinZone: Alex, it’s year two of Justin Layne and he has not made any kind of a mark in the secondary. What is your projection for him as a legit CB in this league?

Alex: It’s a different era for Steelers CBs. No longer getting thrown into the fire. So an evaluation is tough, especially with no preseason and me not being at training camp. The guy still hasn’t played a defensive snap. But I wasn’t thrilled with the pick when they made it and nothing I’ve seen in the early stages of his career has made me think otherwise.

WeWantDaTruth: Alex, hard to believe Steeler opponents have not been called for holding our defenders a single time this year. Your take?

Alex: I don’t really have one, to be honest. Enough other football stuff for me to focus in on. I imagine those things will normalize out over a 16 game season.

Douglas Prostorog: who is the most likely “rental”–Wormly, Wiz or Ebron?

Alex: All three could be. Ebron is the most likely to return. Wormley and Wiz are probably equally tied to leaving. Good chances both are gone. I’ll say Wiz is the most likely to go though and they draft an interior guy in 2021. Save a little money in the process.

Douglas Prostorog: related question: who is the most likely cap casualty come next year?

Alex: Probably Vance. Good as he’s been as a blocker, he’s not worth the $5 million with a team so tight against the cap.

Yeshaya: Hey Alex, now that we’re at the 25% mark of the season (a week earlier than we expected but still), who would you give the quarter-season awards to? I’m thinking of offensive MVP, defensive MVP, biggest overachiever, and most disappointing, but please answer for any awards you can think of. Thanks!

Alex: I really haven’t thought about it much. The sample size still seems small. But I’ll give it my best shot.

Offensive MVP – Ben. Obvious. But deserved. It’s good to have your franchise QB back.

Defensive MVP – TJ Watt. Lot of great options here. But few players are as complete as Watt and his production has been its usual strong self.

Biggest Overachiever – I’m not sure who to give that too because I don’t want to slight someone. Tyson Alualu is playing better than I expected, than anyone expected, but I think he can keep it up.

Most Disappointing – Again, don’t think anyone really sticks out. Some will say Minkah or Bush. I dunno if I agree, especially with Bush. Matt Feiler hasn’t been quite as sturdy as I expected through the first month. Allowed another sack Sunday.

The Tony: Hey Alex! Rank your top 5 Steelers defenders of all time

Alex: Yinz giving me some tough questions at the end of the mailbag. Don’t hold me to these…I want to do an updated Top 100 list this offseason so check back then.

1. Joe Greene – Undisputed #1. Easiest one of the list.
2. Jack Lambert – Just for embodying everything it meant to be a Steeler. His attitude, the culture they created, didn’t stem from Lambert (it came from Noll and Mean Joe) but Lambert was everything you look for in a Steeler.
3. Troy Polamalu – Just a special, special player. I don’t know when – or if – we’ll ever see a guy who did the things Troy did in a Steelers’ uniform again.
4. Mel Blount – Get a rule named after you and you get on this list. He edges out Woodson because he spent his entire career as a Steeler. Though Woodson did play a solid ten years. Just something about being a Steeler for life (and not becoming a Raven).
5. Ernie Stautner – Show some love to the pre-dynasty club. There’s a reason why he was the first player to have his jersey retired and the only one for a long, long time. Him and Big Daddy Lipscomb were briefly one of the best DT duos the NFL had to offer.

Listing the rest…

6. James Harrison
7. Rod Woodson
8. Jack Ham
9. Jack Butler
10. LC Greenwood

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