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Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

Welcome back to the mailbag. And oh boy, it has been a busy day. We’re here for the next hour to answer anything and everything on your mind.

To your questions!

CP72: Man AK where do I start?
Do you think Ben wants to come back to a team that probably isn’t going to be as talented as the previous year and with a new coordinator?

Alex: It’s probably not his favorite thing, we know Ben and Fichtner were close, but I don’t think it’s enough to drive him away. His competitive edge and will to win I think still weighs out. And if Pouncey/DeCastro returns, he’ll want to come back for his guys. So he probably doesn’t love the circumstances but he’s been playing football since 2004. He’s seen a lot of change. And his body, at least his arm, feels good. And that’s most important.

James Cowan: 

Hey Alex,

Appreciate the site as ever.

Why does Brandon Hunt never get any look ins for GM roles around the league?

Steelers draft well considering the position they pick and he’s a key part of that. Seems strange to an outsider looking in!

Alex: It’s a fair question. I don’t have a good answer. We circle Hunt because the Steelers do like to stay internal, have guys work their way up the ladder. So he’s obviously a larger point of interest in Pittsburgh than he would be to an outside team. Remember, Hunt drew serious interest from the Eagles a couple years ago. And we don’t know about stuff behind the scenes that doesn’t make the news. Interviews he turned down, teams that showed interest but ultimately never committed, etc.

Ian Suttie: Any idea what Russ Grimm is up to these days? He sure would look good back in the ‘Burgh

Alex: Couldn’t tell you. Not coaching, obviously. Based off his Wikipedia page, looks like he has a big family (four kids) though they’ve all grown up. But I think his time coaching is done. Last stop was Tennessee in 2017. For a Steelers team who says they want to get past status quo, I would avoid Steelers’ rehires.

Yeshaya: Someone described the job of a coach as getting more out of a player than you’d expect. Which particular players or position groups have really outperformed what we’d expect from their talent in Tomlin era? The 2008 O-line comes to mind, I’m trying to think of other examples.

Alex: That’s sorta my definition too. It’s a good question that I’d have to put some more thought and research into answering. Even if they aren’t always outliving expectations, Tomlin and this team does a good job finding talent. Better to find talent that meets expectations than miss on talent and try to win with scheme to elevate them.

I could point to things like the changing of the guard in the secondary, getting this defense to be more aggressive, more ball-hawking, which is part Tomlin, part players, part Tomlin hiring a guy like Teryl Austin to improve in that area. You could point to the obviously steady stream of receivers who always seem to step up, even though this team rarely invests a top 50 pick at the position. That’s a clear one. Helps having Ben throw to them, of course, but their track record is as good as anyone.

And just in general, they hit on a lot of their first round picks. They have their misses, their busts (Artie, Jarvis, to a slightly lesser extent, Mendenhall) but they make the top picks count. Look at the 2017 class. We don’t talk about how good that group was at the top: Watt, JuJu, Conner, Sutton. Did any team have a better top four than Pittsburgh? Those were all hits.

Steven Small: 

Urgh, off-season questions too early!

What did you think of Ray-Ray this season? Did he improve the return game or did the rest of the unit him? Without checking the stats, I thought we did better than previous seasons. Has Danny Smith done enough to keep this job another year in your opinion? (Maybe that’s a stupid question to ask the Danny Smith Fanclub…)

Alex: He was really good. Especially in the kick return game. That functions as a unit and as I outlined in the past, the blocking was most often the biggest failure there. And the blocking was a lot better. I’m not sure how/why it changed but obviously glad it did. And McCloud helped too after getting past the first wave. My standpoint in the KR game is: blockers job is to get the returner through the first wave of bodies, avoiding the negative plays where L3 is running free and blows the play up. The returner’s job is to make a play once he reaches the second level. Similar relationship to a running back/offensive line. Line blocks the first level, RB has to make a play once he reaches daylight. And McCloud did that. He faded down the stretch, pressed a little bit, but Pittsburgh’s KR game was 29th, 31st, and 31st the previous three years. This year? Tied for 11th. Enough said.

Yes, Smith did enough. Special teams were good this year, especially after they booted Colquitt and brought Berry bad. Berry had a career year in gross average.

JamesinNYC: Hey Alex, two things. One do you think Steelers part ways with enough comfort people Fichtner maybe Pouncey that Ben says he has had enough? (would avoid letting him go) Two congratulations on the new home … what can I do to make a house warming donation to the Alex Kozora homestead.

Alex: These are crazy times so who knows. We’re right on the edge of a Steelers’ transition from the Ben era to the post-Ben era. So a lot is going to happen and it’s going to happen quickly. But I still believe Ben will come back. For at least 2021. Probably done after that. He wants to honor his contract, he’s a competitive guy, and health-wise, seems to be in a good spot.

Ha, thank you James. I’m just excited to move into the house. Big move-in day is finally tomorrow. That is the one, small upside to the Steelers’ season being over. Makes the move a little less stressful.

Christopher Pokins: Alex,
I asked early in the season if Canada was signed to be the O.C. for 2021. You said “no, no changes until Ben retires”. Not knocking you for your response, asking if this is the writing on the wall that Ben retires? And do you think all these changes to the coaching staff came from above as a way for Tomlin to keep his job? Like Tomlin but could see Steelers playing out Colbert’s contract, Ben’s and start off new with Omar Khan promotion, hires his own new young coach (Lincoln Riley) and let them pick their own new QB. Thoughts?

Alex: You’re right. That didn’t turn out to be true. I don’t know if the team would’ve made changes had they had a more successful season and not the bitter disappointment of being one-and-done again. If they had gotten to at least the title game again, they may not have switched OCs. And we’ll see – obviously, Ben isn’t guaranteed to return, though I think he will. And like I said on the podcasts after Sunday’s loss, I think it’s good for things to be shaken up. To get out of this rut of the status quo. And I was a lot less “Ben/Fichtner are joined at the hip” over the last few days before this news.

Who facilitates this changes? I think it’s a group discussion between Rooney, Tomlin, Colbert. I don’t know if it’s a mandate from Rooney. But they’re all involved, I’m sure.

We’ll see about the future. It’s hard to predict. But as I wrote above, we are just starting to feel the transition period the Steelers are in. More changes are coming in the next 1-2 years.

Daniel Moon: Hey Alex,
I appreciate what Ben has done for this franchise however, I cannot wait to have a re-start without Ben. I just don’t think we can win another SB with Ben at the helm. We need to have someone other than Ben (hopefully an athletic QB) before our defense window is closing. Any thoughts?

Alex: There’s value in a mobile QB, that’s where the league is going, but be careful what you wish for. We saw what last year looked like. I’m sure many were ready to turn the page from Bradshaw. And at some point, yeah, you have to move on. But that doesn’t mean the next Super Bowl window opens. When Ben is done, we’re back living in the 80s all over.

HinesWardFan: 

Alex,

Do I have this right? Cleveland was missing 4 coaches. Cleveland had multiple players out with COVID-19. Cleveland wasn’t able to practice most of the week due to facilities closed. Cleveland did not have their regular play caller for the game. The Steelers intentionally rested veterans, who then in turn came out like they hadn’t played in a month. Is that about right?

Alex: Yeah, that sounds about right.

George Hareras:

Hey Alex!

Any chance you guys can post interviews you guys do outside of the podcast? I’m not on Twitter, so a place on the site would be great!

Bonus question:
Rank them- Dragonball, DBZ, GT, Super

Alex: I’m not exactly sure what you mean by interviews outside the podcast. Are you talking about ones where someone has me on their show? Sometimes we post them. Not always because of other content with the site. But I’ll try to be more mindful of that in the future, George.

Good bonus question. I’m going to go:

1. DBZ
2. Dragonball
3. Super
4. Turning off the TV
5. GT

hoptown: The next QB after Ben retires is:
2021 – Stafford, Jameis, Carr, Mariota, Darnold, Rudolph or draft pick
2022 – Wentz, Carr, Darnold, Haskins, Rudolph or draft pick

Alex: Less of a question than a comment but noted. Remember, if Ben isn’t the QB in 2021 because he retires or is cut, the Steelers don’t automatically get that $41 million cap charge cleared. They get about half of that and will still be in a tough cap situation. So they won’t be able to sign a big-name QB like Stafford who will command a lot of money.

There may be a bridge QB at some point down the road for 2022 but the next franchise QB of the Pittsburgh Steelers is in college right now.

stan: What have you heard about the strength of this draft class? I keep seeing fringe players return to college for a fifth year due to Covid and wonder if its turned out to be a bad year for the Steelers to have extra draft picks.

Alex: I’m just scratching the surface on that to be honest, stan. Like you said, the difficulty is knowing who will be eligible or not. Basically anyone can return and players don’t have to declare until March 1st. That news just came out today.

Scouting and drafting this year will be more difficult than last year. Last year, you had a full college season with your scouts in attendance like normal, you had normal declare dates, a normal set of All-Star games (Shrine Game is cancelled this year, Senior Bowl is still on) you had a normal Combine, and the first 25% of Pro Days before things shutdown in March. This year, you’ve lost/are losing a lot of that. So it will be an even bigger challenge.

Brian Tollini: In terms of RB, do you think we look strictly at the draft, or is there a possibility we also look at free agents? Understanding cap space is extremely limited…Gus Edwards? Marlon Mack?

Alex: Maybe some low-level special teams guy but I expect the draft. Cheaper, less wear and tear, longer contracts, and like you said, team doesn’t have much money. Focusing on keeping their own than collecting outsiders. Look for another Day 2-Early Day 3 selection, which has been the norm for several years (Conner, Samuels, Snell, McFarland).

Kevin Good: Looking forward to the prospects breakdowns Alex. Sucks you’ll have the time to do them so soon.
But I am firmly in the draft Mac Jones category. Start there, get some line replacements.
My question is about the college coaches to the pro ranks. Most of them fail, probably because of the attitudes. But do you think Urban Meyer will succeed? And should the Steelers go after a fresh minded OC from the college ranks? I don’t have anyone in mind.

Alex: I don’t have a good feel for Meyer’s success or failure. He’ll get Lawrence and that’s a good place to start with. Just a weird situation with his health and the rigors of the NFL and if it’ll all work.

If they wanted to go with the fresh/young face, probably just stay internal and hire Canada. I think they either do that or go with a vet guy that probably works better with Ben. I don’t want to be beholden to what Ben wants/doesn’t want (and they aren’t, given they’re moving on from Fichtner) but you don’t want to overcorrect and totally discount what’s best for him and the offense too. Or else you’re risking dooming yourself.

Stephen: Hey Alex,
Last two playoff games were 45-42 and 49-37 losses and they get rid of the offensive coordinator both times. I know the offense contributed a lot to the opponents point total but the defense in those games was also garbage, so why just the offensive coordinator was let go and defense coordinator retained. Thank you

Alex: Not just about one game, though those losses are deeply disappointing. Especially this year’s where the defense had a lot more talent. Offensive turnovers didn’t help but there’s no arguing the defense was bad. It was, however, the better unit this year than the offense. So there’s a big picture element to look at too. And if Tomlin is just taking over as DC, which seems to basically be happening, then there’s less of a point to dump Butler and bring in a figurehead.

The Tony: 

Alex,

If Kahn were to be promoted to GM, would the Steelers receive any of the 3rd round compensation picks?

Alex: No. That’s for teams who lose a person to another team. That way, teams don’t try to “game” the system by hiring a minority to get the draft picks. Which was the right way to setup this rule.


That’s all for this week. Thanks guys! Lots of great questions.

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