Welcome back to your Thursday mailbag. As always, we’re here for the next hour to answer whatever is on your mind.
To your questions!
D-Ville Tommy: I am having a lot of trouble getting behind this team’s prospects for this season, primarily because of Big Ben and the offense. I love the growth of al the rookies, but I’m seeing way too many WR screens, IMO. Are you at all concerned that Ben’s arm may be wearing out so early in the year?
Alex: I’m not worried about Ben’s arm, no. His overall play is another story. But his arm wearing out isn’t that high on my list of concerns. This is an offense that just needs to score more. No team without an elite elite offense – and probably a time machine to take you back to 2003 – is going far when they average around 18-20 points per game, as this group has. Not in today’s era of football.
What’s your thoughts on getting Pierre in on the nickel as well the dime package? Move Sutton inside on everything, except base. Maulet had been a decent player, but Pierre seems to be the one with more upside. Be nice to get him more snaps.
Alex: Not a bad thought. But they do like Maulet in the run game and he’s done well there. That was why they turned to Maulet this season, though it was partially because they ran out of options I suppose. But they wanted that Hilton-type of player so I figure they are going to stick with Maulet. He does come off the field in obvious pass situations, in the team’s dime package. It’s not like James Pierre has played so well that he is demanding playing time this season either. They’re less focused on the upside and more on the here and now of who helps them win.
Steelers Fan: Hi Alex, how much more growth can we expect out of the O-line as a unit this year? Is there a threshold to how well they will be able to communicate and coordinate? Or is that something that continues to grow over time no matter what?
Alex: It’s not something I really can quantify, especially from an outside point of view. But certainly, you can and would expect them to continually grow. It will ebb and flow, as it did last week, but over larger spans of time, comparing Week 1 to Week 6, Week 6 to Week 12, Week 12 to Week 18, you would hope to see this group make strides. And they have. Does that level off at some point? Probably. When you start from a low bar, you might shoot up a bit at first and then plateau to some degree. It obviously can’t and won’t grow up and up every single week forever unless the Steelers have assembled the best starting five of all-time.
I’m seeing a major effort by Coach Butler to design things around speed in the middle of the field. Hence the major capital invested into ILB, Safety, and Slot DB. The slot is an ongoing question mark, but what’s going on with Strong Safety? People say that Edmunds is struggling, but isn’t his run support looking as good as we could ask? He’s also making the decisions needed to always be around the football, and if his coverage was *that* bad, wouldn’t we be seeing Karl Joseph on the field?
I have the sense that I’m missing something schematically. What are the jobs that our SS is asked to do in 2021, and where does Edmunds rank on each compared to Coach T’s famous “line”?
Alex: His run support has been fine. I haven’t had that as the issue. I don’t know if you’d be seeing Joseph on the field. I don’t think about it in those terms of what the team *should* be doing. I just look at what Edmunds has done. He’s had some growth in coverage but I haven’t seen him take a step this year. He just plays slower in coverage than he’s timed. When you get beat by a 30-something Randall Cobb, get beat by a 34-year old, washed up Jimmy Graham, that’s alarming. That shouldn’t be happening. He’s just slower to process in man and zone. His lack of playmaking is less of an issue when he’s paired with a great playmaker like Minkah but it’s still lacking.
To answer your question with a question, if they were that happy with Edmunds play, why didn’t they pick up his 5th year option?
In terms of his role, the SS wears a lot of hats. Just the way the ILBs and interior players tend to do. There isn’t much they aren’t asked to do from time to time. So trying to define that role is hard to nail down in a specific, meaningful way.
McCloud’s struggles feel very familiar. We churn through returners on a very frequent basis, either failing to land a solid, consistent guy or, when we do, he gets promoted out of the role because he demonstrates higher value at his full-time position (e.g., WR). I don’t follow returners around the NFL, so I’m wondering — do other teams churn through guys or struggle at the position like Pittsburgh seems to? Or is this situation fairly unique to Pittsburgh and, if so, is there anything to attribute it to (e.g., an organizational thing, a Danny Smith thing, something else)?
Alex: I don’t follow it super closely either. I imagine there is a fair amount of turnover because rarely is a return guy – unless he’s elite – going to be a lock on the roster. He’s usually a #4/5 WR, a backend of the roster guy whose job is safe. The margin for error for these return guys aren’t big and there’s just a lot of roster turnover general in football. Especially at the rate some coaching staffs turnover.
Usually return guys either climb the ladder to a more meaningful role on offense (like Diontae Johnson) so they get taken off the return game or they get cut and replaced in yearly roster churn. Most guys don’t stay static as pure returner for 5+ years unless again, they are an elite type of guy. Like Jakeem Grant, for example.
For Pittsburgh, they churned a bit just because no one was good enough. The KR unit struggled for years so they rotated through guys to find someone who could produce. The PR game was pretty stable in the AB years. Eight years as their punt returner.
The Tony: The Steelers are blitzing less this year, do you think they’re going to start sending more creative designed blitzes at a higher rate this season, or will it be just let TJ and Cam get to the QB?
Alex: It doesn’t seem like it. We have enough of a sample size to know it’s not just a one-off thing like we thought it might have been against the Bills. Things can change game-to-game but yeah, this team is simply blitzing less and playing more zone. Trying to not give up the big play and helping out a secondary that is changing and one that isn’t playing this year.
D.j. Reynolds: Alex, if Claypool is out this week, do we see another WR call up from the PS? If so, is it Sims or Miller?
Alex: Yes. Because if not, you’d have only four healthy WRs: Johnson, Washington, McCloud, and White. I would expect Anthony Miller to get elevated.