Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

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Welcome back to your weekly mailbag. As always, we’re here for the next hour to answer anything and everything on your mind.

To your questions!

WeWantDaTruth: Hey Alex! To kick start the running game, it’s been suggested inserting Dotson at LG and kicking Feiler back out to RT. Chuks would be the swing tackle. Dotson is a mauler in the run game. Your thoughts on a move like this so late in the season?

Alex: I had a longer and probably more intelligent answer on yesterday’s podcast. I’m not 100% opposed to the idea of benching Feiler because clearly, this line is not playing well in the run game, but I’m not as adamant as others. And less so about kicking Feiler to RT. For a couple reasons.

1. Don’t like moving more pieces around to fix o-line problems than I have to. Creates more uncertainty, unintended consequences.

2. Dotson lot less time at LG than RG. I’m sure he’s gotten more comfortable at LG than he was at the start of the year but you’re not guaranteed to see the same results. He’s been a RG his entire career. So there’s an adjustment there.

3. This line is still doing an awesome job in pass pro. Make a lot of changes and you may see pass pro suffer and the run game getting a little better turn out to be a wash.

4. The issue isn’t entirely on Feiler or Chuks. It’s a unit-wide problem. So I don’t think plugging Dotson in magically solves everything either.

5. My bar for the run game is so low and the line has shown they can run block the first four/five weeks of the season. I’d rather work with this current group and get them back to that level than make a ton of changes. If this was a unit that needed a great run game to win, I’d be more open to it. They just need to be barely average and good-enough situationally. I think I can get them to clear those very low expectations.

stan: I feel like I must be watching a different game than everyone else. I keep seeing Highsmith struggling to disengage from pass blockers and I know I’m not crazy because the Football Reference stats back that up. (He has 1 QB hit, 4 pressures and 3 hurries on the year in 180+ snaps). However, everyone on this site seems really high on him. I can see that he’s doing well against the run, but his pass rushing looks really weak to me. Tell me I’m wrong (I really want to be).

Alex: I’m running the year-long numbers for our updated charting tonight or tomorrow so I’ll have some figures on Highsmith for the morning. Obviously not all those snaps he’s been on are pass plays. And our figures are a little different. We have him down for seven pressures (six if you discount one no-play because of a Ravens’ offensive hold).

I think we all made it clear he would be a big downgrade from Dupree. So we’re high on him in relative terms. He needs work as a pass rusher, Tom Mead did a good job breaking that down last week, but you’re seeing the wheels turning. He has a lot of moves, a good plan, and he’s a hard worker. He’ll make big strides this offseason refining technique and getting stronger, just as Dupree did. I’m optimistic because he’s a hard-working, high IQ, and pretty athletic dude. That’s a good foundation.

Kevin Reich: With poor O line play and cap issues, could Decastro be a cap casualty this off-season?

Alex: I’m not. You’re going to potentially lose Villanueva, Feiler, and then cut DeCastro? Think losing those three guys and you’ll protect Ben as well this year as last? I know the run game stinks and the o-line is the central part of that but the pass pro has been as good as the run game’s been bad. And I don’t want to overlook that nor do I want to put all of that on Ben’s release time. They’re about to have the second longest streak since the merger without a sack. That’s pretty special.

Also worth pointing out DeCastro probably isn’t 100% coming from injuries. Season got off to a rough start with some of the little things he dealt with that shelved him. But yeah, not cutting DeCastro.

WeWantDaTruth: Do you think Tomlin should’ve contested the WFT FG at the end of the first half more than he did? Those points ended up being important, not to mention a momentum shift

Alex: Spilt milk. Not going to change anything. Just as Harbaugh’s griping about the Steelers laying on the pile didn’t change anything. It sucks. But you move on. Certainly big, internal issues that Tomlin’s time is occupied by this week.

stan: What’s the story about Gilbert’s injury? Is there a real chance that we see him back this year? It looks like we might need the depth.

Alex: Glad he’s available to come back. Needed depth with Spillane’s injury. So it looks like he’ll get activated at some point unless his back flares up again. Will that be this week? I don’t know. Like you said though, would be good to get him back to you again.

WeWantDaTruth: Will Cassius Marsh be a ST player only, are will he also be a 3rd down & long pass rush specialist?

Alex: He’ll probably rotate in. Steelers haven’t had a pass rush specialist in years, they just rotate on long drives or to start a new one. But yeah, I imagine Marsh will work his way as a #3 option at some point.

WeWantDaTruth: Why do the Steelers have an affinity for going long on 3rd/4th & short? I can see being that aggressive once in awhile, but it seems like we go deep way too often in these situations rather than calling a higher percentage pass play. Thoughts?

Alex: I really don’t know if that’s true. Often times, it’s not by design. Times where you want to throw short but the defense knows it too. So they play something short, which forces you to go long. And the coverage is usually more favorable on the outside. More single high safety because teams are bringing eight into the box to stop the run, more man coverage, more chances to win on the outside.

Obviously, there are times where they throw long in those scenarios, like the sluggo to McFarland, but most of the time, the play is designed for something short/quick.

Wreckless: So the throws towards the intermediate and deep middle of the field are frustratingly almost nonexistent. On tape, are you seeing that it’s just not open or is Ben just straying away from it? Or are they not even running many routes towards that portion of the field? With how much defenses are cheating up against the short game, it should definitely be open.

Alex: It’s a question worth a deeper dive but yeah, it doesn’t feel like they’re running a lot of routes there. Some with Ebron. But JuJu has really felt like a RB route tree. So much shallow and underneath as a safety valve. Obviously, there’s a variety of factors and with teams playing safeties underneath to take away the quick game, they’re running single high safety/MOF closed. So it can be harder to make those throws over the middle. So in that sense, while you’re right about defenses cheating up, it can make those plays harder unless you hit them quick down the seam like Ben’s done with Ebron/Washington.

Bob Francis: It looks wise to have brought in Williamson as veteran depth when they did. Overall, I’m impressed with how well the team has cultivated quality depth, and – as Heyward says – gives some snaps to those players to prepare them. That said, are there any positions that you see as frighteningly thin such that an injury to starter would really be hard to overcome (aside from QB, of course)?

Alex: Not really. As you said, they added depth to places they needed it before/during the season. ILB, safety. Obviously ILB is still thin but teams can only sustain so many injuries. TE is pretty weak without one of McDonald or Ebron but you kina knew that going in. And you can work around that better than you could injuries to say, ILB.

Paul Barracliffe: 

Hey Alex
1) I want the team to make any necessary sacrifices to keep both Hilton and Sutton I know you will say this can never happen, we can let JuJu (he is not that great), Feiler and Dupree walk and should be close. I would even be gone with Joe Haden, he is long in the tooth and Sutton is an ascending db.

2) If we can get Darnold for 2nd rounder or less then it’s gotta happen. With a year on the bench behind Ben I think he could be great in the Burgh.


Alex: Sure. There are ways mathematically to keep both guys I suppose. You’re just destroying your roster to do it. Much as I love Hilton and Sutton, and want one of those guys back, it’s not worth all the cutting you’d have to do to get there. And would Sutton want to keep his role as dime defender? Doubtful. I guess in your scenario, he takes over at LCB with Haden gone but that’s just not how the team conducts business.

By the time Roethlisberger actually retires, Darnold’s rookie deal is up. And/or you pick up his 5th year option which is incredibly expensive and won’t let you keep the players you want to keep in your first point.

Petherson Silveria: 

Let´s go Alex,

How to Fix the rungame? LOL

Alex: Oh man, Petherson, you’re hitting me with a big question. I wish I had all the answers. I don’t. Want to see this line be more physical, sustain their blocks, play with a nastier edge than what they’ve shown. That’s pretty vague and sorta “your HS coach who just yelled ‘BLOCK SOMEBODY!’ after every failed run” which wasn’t helpful to anyone but I just haven’t this team win the LOS as often as they need to. That much is obvious.

At this point, I’d run how I pass it. Spread things out. Lighten the box, create more defined 1v1 matchups and hope your back wins a couple.

JMD: Has the offensive line really done well in pass protection? I know the sack numbers are ridiculously low, but given how quick Ben is throwing the ball and (per your latest film session) teams are dropping lineman into coverage, how much is it really their talent vs. scheme on both sides of the ball? Even though the sacks are low, the batted passes are very high.

Alex: They have. Even considering the context and caveats I’ve mentioned. Teams aren’t dropping out all the time. Just mostly in those short-yardage situations. That doesn’t mean there are areas for improvement. A guy like Chuks Okorafor probably hasn’t played as well as some of the low sack numbers suggest.

But you gotta look big picture. Ben has thrown the ball 40+ times in five straight games, a Steelers’ record, and he hasn’t been sacked once. It’s about to be the second longest sackless streak since the merger. That’s always going to be impressive. I’m not going to try to downplay that. Seems super cynical otherwise.

That’s all for this week. Thanks guys!

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