Welcome back to your Pittsburgh Steelers mailbag. As always, we’re here for the next hour to answer whatever is on your mind.
To your questions!
Steelers Depot: Alex, how is your new Porsche running?
Alex: Ha, like a dream. It’s still not a Porsche but we’ve come a long way from the McLumina days.
Troy Toe Tap: Alex, who is your available D-lineman of choice if the Steelers were to fill a need?
Alex: Good timing to ask that. I’ll have an article in the morning that discusses two names who make sense from a fit/financial perspective.
But I think there is too much of a focus on the shiny outsiders when they’re generally 30+ year old journymen who are available in early June for a reason. The focus needs to be in on the internal guys, the ones who are already here, and the collective line as a whole. That will be what defines who well this unit plays without Stephon Tuitt.
Matt Smith: As of today, what would be your best guess as to the QB division of labor for the 12 quarters in the preseason?
Alex: That’s a good one. Obviously the majority should be Trubisky and Pickett. How that could look is always a bit difficult can say and even may change in-game based on circumstances. But something like.
Trubisky: 1st Quarter
Rudolph: 2nd Quarter, first drive of 3rd quarter
Pickett: Rest Of Game
Pickett: 1st Quarter
Trubisky: 2nd Quarter, first drive of 3rd quarter
Rudolph: Rest Of Game
Trubisky: 1st Half
Pickett: 2nd Half
With a tiny bit of Chris Oladokun appearing for the final drive or two.
So add that up and you get:
And that’s a very rough way to look at it so please, do not hold me to it. But it’s the idea of Trubisky and Pickett seeing the most action, rotating them a bit in different circumstances (off the bench, starting, coming out of the half), and learning as much as you can about how these guys react and respond to different variables. That’s how I would do it, anyway.
Really wish this team had a HOF game this year. Could’ve used that fourth game.
ironkett: Inspired by the recent “On the Bubble” articles, which roster spot battle interested you the most this summer?
Alex: Are you referring to starter vs backup or making the roster overall? If it’s the latter, I assume it is since you say “roster spot,” then I’m interesting in seeing the back-end of the CB and ILB room. A lot of guys there, younger faces, more veteran types, and I don’t know how it’ll shake out. James Pierre versus Justin Layne versus maybe Damontae Kazee (different type of role/position but still part of that group).
The inside linebacker group is a jumbled up assortment of names. Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen, Ulysees Gilbert III, Buddy Johnson, Mark Robinson. They can’t all make it behind Devin Bush or Myles Jack. So that’ll be a good fight to try to make the 53 I’m excited to watch.
Jarvis Ragdoll Jones: Based strictly on the quality of his play shouldn’t Devin Bush have been benched last year? He was absolutely dreadful. If not for the draft capital they gave up to get him I believe he would have been a backup. I know they did not have much behind him but C’Mon!!
Alex: I get that and to an extent, he was. He was removed in a lot of dime situations and they were running, or trying to run, a bit of a rotation last year. But as you mentioned, there just wasn’t a lot behind Bush to replace him. So they were sort of stuck.
srdan:This has been an offseason of change. When you look at the gravity of each event (new GM, QB..Tuitt), how would you rank them? I feel like 91 retiring is a big deal for the upcoming season.
Alex: Whew, good question. It’s hard to rank them. They’re all so consequential. No wrong answers. But I’d say.
1. QB – That’s where the game starts. Most important position in sports. Now there is the hope and goal that the position will be better this year than last, in some respects it will, in some it won’t. But to have a QB be your guy since 2004 and then to switch, wow. And this is the first actual QB competition since…when? Earlier than 2004. In 2004, Maddox was the guy. So you’d have to go back a legitimate 20 years to find the last summer competition this team is about to watch unfold.
2. GM/Scouts – I’m including the scouting changes here, too. All the FO upheavel that has been unheard of over Colbert’s tenure. Staying in-house with Khan makes it a little less of a change but still, the Steelers are a top-down organization. And a change there will always be significant.
3. Free Agent Spending – If that counts as a change. Pretty wild offseason and uncommon for the team to be this aggressive. Had money to play with, of course, and that’s one reason, but we’ve never seen such an expensive FA class in Pittsburgh before.
4. Tuitt – Certainly a big loss. Not minimizing that. But it is just one man and I still think this d-line will be better this year than 2021, even without him.
5. DC – Teryl Austin replacing Keith Butler. Since it’s all under Mike Tomlin’s umbrella.
As of today what do you see as our most glaring need
Alex: It’s not an outside need but who the QB is. I know a lot of people want to talk and think about outside help. I’m more concerned with the guys who on the roster. Who the QB is, how the o-line looks, etc. I care about that than adding some street free agent who has been sitting for months.
If they do bring in a veteran DE, who will they fire to make room for the extra body? The room seems stacked already. There are three NT’s, only two of whom can make the team, and four quality DE’s with Mondeaux as the “weird emergency guy”. Is there really a chance that the team would keep five DE’s?
On a parallel topic, why is it so hard to accept that an 85% injury rate would result in historically bad numbers for any unit at all? They went into 2021 with seven DL’s competing for six roster spots, 2½ of which are starters. By Week 3 they’d lost #2 (Tuitt), #3 (Alualu), half of #4 (Wormley played hurt), #5 (Buggs), and #6 (Davis), with #7 being a rookie. If Adams hadn’t been found in Week 12 they’d have been forced to bring back Duck Hodges to do the job!
Alex: We’ll see. Like I tweeted yesterday, they carry six guys and they have six right now. So on paper, you could roll with that group. But you want competition and certainly injury protection. What looked like the group going into camp last year looked different exiting camp and looked different very early into the year. As Dave says, these things have a way of solving themselves so you may have seven, have a guy go down in camp, and that creates the spot.
Point taken on all the injuries. And that’s why I think this group will be better, even if it’s without Tuitt.
Will: How do you think the team will use Connor Heyward? Do you think he’ll be TE3? Runningback depth? Practice squad guy? I have a hard time imagining the offensive coaching staff finding creative ways to use him given their sparse use of Derek Watt last year, though I would love to see some of that.
Alex: Little bit of all of the above. He’s jack of all trades. He’s not just a one position or role guy. I certainly see him more like a H-Back than a true, in-line tight end, he’s far too small for that, but he is capable of moving around the formation and wearing a lot of hats, in addition to being a multi-phase special teamer.
Heyward brings more offensive juice, better hands, faster, more athletic overall than Watt so I don’t want to compare that 1:1. Plus Watt was hurt a good chunk of his first season and this offense will look different in the post-Ben world. More condensed sets, heavier personnel, more time under center, more boots and throws to the flat that lend itself to hitting the FB.
What do you think the Steelers will do with their newfound salary cap space? The fan in me hopes for a couple of late “win now” additions like Trae Turner and Melvin Ingram last year but I have a feeling I shouldn’t get my hopes up (even though we’re technically under new management).
On a similar question, how certain do you think the Steelers were that Tuitt was going to retire? 50%? 75%? I’m asking because I’m thinking they must’ve had some sort of plan in case he did.
Alex: Probably do less than people will think or hope they do. At least over the next two months. Maybe sign a mid or low level defensive lineman but I don’t think there’s a big splash about to hit the newswire. Khan is going to run it pretty similar to Colbert.
As to the second question, I can’t answer that. I think they hoped for him to return but planned for life without him. The smart, pragmatic thing to do.
Hey Alex. I know you get asked all the time about holes on the roster, potential outside help, etc. (And at least it looks like there’s a new/old 4th OLB.) I tend to agree with you that signing some street FA at this point makes little sense, not least because there’s no clear starting position for any vet to fill, no one who’s clearly better than the guys on the roster already. (And certainly I’m not thinking anyone like Suh would be signed.) Maybe it’ll happen during cutdowns — and obviously the team has money to spend, as needed.
But let me ask the question, sort of, from a different perspective. On offence, which I think we can agree is the weaker side of the ball for the Steelers (as reflected in your and Dave’s comments that the Steelers will need to win close, low-scoring games to have any success this year), what do you see as a key missing weapon that the team just doesn’t have. I get that offensive success will depend a great deal on QB and line play, but for the rest of the so-called “skill” positions, they seem pretty solid overall: top RB, potentially top TE, 4-5 deep at WR. So what’s missing? What weapon don’t they have? Is it the deep threat at WR (if Pickens can’t do it)? Is it a reliable #2 RB? I’m not saying the offence will be elite, not by any stretch, but if there’s decent QB and line play, the rest of the pieces seem to be there.
Alex: In terms of what the team is missing, it’s experience. It’s time to rep, evaluate, and to grow. It’s a very young and green group overall and so we need to take this year to evaluate them. How this offensive line goes, how Kenny Pickett plays (if he plays). And it really is about that o-line. It’s still a major question mark, though things are better now than they were an offseason ago.
Maybe they exceed expectations and that would be a wonderful thing. But can they get that high-level play in an AFC North, and AFC, full of it, with teams who have better ground games and better offensive lines. That’s the challenge.
mem359: You just mentioned that it would be nice to have another preseason game for the QB competition. Any chance of a Buffalo scrimmage, like they did a few years ago?
Alex: If memory serves, Pittsburgh does that when they’re playing one of those teams in the preseason, like they did in 2014 with Buffalo. Makes more sense logistically. Steelers do have two home games but they have Seattle, Detroit, and Jacksonville. And I don’t know if those teams want to make such a long trip in. We’ll see. With COVID rules gone, joint practices can happen again, which is nice.
falconsaftey43: Hey Alex, more just a comment, but I was a little shocked to realize the Okorafor is the longest tenured memeber of the offense, players and coaches included, at 4 years experience with the team. No one else has more than 3 years with the Steelers. And Faulkner is the only offensive coach that’s been here for 3 years. That’s a really new offense, both staff and players.
Alex: Absolutely. I think Dave and I ran through it last week on the podcast. The longest tenured guy is still pretty young. I think it’s some Eagles’ writer/publication that publishes the average age for units/teams each year and I’d bet a couple of pennies Pittsburgh has a top-three youngest offense in football, maybe the youngest. It’s a lot of new and that is a good thing in many ways but it will create some growing pains.
It’s really a byproduct of the team being so…old for such a long time. The same five lineman, the same quarterback, some mixing and matching at the skill positions but not drastic change there either. That wasn’t going to last forever. It lasted longer than most could pull off. But here we are.