Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

Welcome back to your weekly Pittsburgh Steelers’ mailbag. As always, we’re here for the next hour to answer whatever’s on your mind as we’re just days away from the start of the Steelers’ regular season. The NFL season kicks off tonight between the Rams and Bills. Can’t wait.

To your questions!

NickRVA: Hi Alex, how do you see the snap breakdown on the defensive line going? I know Cam will get the majority, but there seems to be some good depth at the other positions.

Alex: Assuming five are active, they should be: Heyward, Alualu, Adams, Wormley, and Ogunjobi. Leal and Loudermilk inactive to start the year. It seems like Ogunjobi will be the left end in base and be a heavy part of the team’s subpackages, too. Alualu the starting nose tackle with Adams rotating in and getting a bit of nickel work, too. Wormley rotational DE at both spots and some work in nickel.

Overall, it’ll still be Heyward probably around 70% of the snaps with a solid rotation behind him of mixing and matching. But depth and talent and experience a lot better than a year ago.


Najee Harris is a good back but at least two years of his rookie deal will be wasted on a poor oline. In retrospect, should Steelers have picked a lineman instead?

Thanks for all the good work!

Alex: I don’t like playing those hindsight games. I like drafting good players and that’s what they did with Harris. He fits the workhorse this back Mike Tomlin wants perfectly. Plus, there wasn’t an obvious linemen they could’ve taken that was staring them in the face. Landon Dickerson was the next lineman drafted after Harris and that came in the early second round and he had some injury concerns. Of course, there is Creed Humphrey, and if you want to gripe about anything, it’s passing on Humphrey in the second round for Pat Freiermuth. Still, the team got a good player so I don’t cry about it much but if you want to take issue with something, that’s it.

ifihadatail007: Over/under on when the OL gels to at least “not a disaster”: Week 4.

Alex: Ha, wish I had an answer. Should be some slow progression overall but ups and downs along the way. Walking up a mountain holding a yo-yo. That’s how it’s going to look. We’re all along for the ride.

Marcel Chris Chauvet: Alex,
Have you noticed the way that Gunner Olzewski fields punts with his hands? He doesn’t tap it against his chest like you’re taught to do. I saw him doing it at training camp and it really stood out to me because I was never able to field a point correctly. I always caught it with my hands the way Olzewski does. Supposedly this can lead to fumbling issues. Do you see it being a problem?

Alex: I hadn’t paid much attention to it. I’ll have to look at that next time. He’s an All-Pro returner and I haven’t seen any evidence of ball security issues so I don’t see it as an issue. One of the biggest keys to fielding punts cleanly is being stationary as you catch the ball. I forget where I saw the number but the fumble rate catching a punt on the move is drastically higher compared to those who get under the ball properly and aren’t moving/sliding as they field the punt. That’s really the #1 key. Tracking and judging the ball well is the priority and he does that well.

Paul Brannigan: Hi Alex – been a fan since … oh … about the Eisenhower Administration.
Anyway, it seems like the shoulder injury to Dionte is worse than we thought coming off the last pre-season game? Any insights there or who is most likely to fill in behind Claypool/Pickens? How does his absence impact what we want to do vs the Bengals?

Alex: Ha, fan of who, Steelers or me? Hopefully the Steelers because I don’t feel that old. We’ll see on Johnson. Probably a bit more serious than Mike Tomlin initially led on. But he could still play this weekend so we’ll see.

But behind him, Gunner Olszewski should be next man up. Claypool and Pickens on the outside with Olszewski in the slot. Even with the “Top 3” healthy, Olszewski is going to rotate a bit into the slot. He looked good this summer and they’re going to get him on the field. Could get involved in some of the receiver run/perimeter game, too.

Not having Johnson probably doesn’t change things schematically too much but some of the quick-game stuff and his YAC ability will be a little bit tougher.

falconsaftey43: Do you think their success on the first drive’s of games will be significantly better this year?

Alex: Well, it’s hard to be worse. So I’d like to think it’ll be better even if that isn’t a terribly high goal. But yeah, I do. Canada getting to run his offense, getting cheap yardage on those boots/rollouts to stay on schedule. I don’t think this offense will still be great out of the gate and their red zone success will be…questionable, Chris Boswell will be busy this year, but I think they’ll at least having some opening scoring drives. Getting a couple chunk plays early will help too and they should throw downfield successfully a bit more.

Jake Sas: Biggest concern going into the bengals game? Gotta be Dan Moore vs whoever they decide to line up across from him for me. I see a lot of chip help to mitigate it. Anything I’m not thinking of?

Alex: Yeah, I’m with you. Just the Bengals’ pass rush in general. Hendrickson, Hubbard, they have a good scheme and the Bengals’ DL is always deep. They traditionally don’t do a lot of chipping/helping on that side so I don’t know how much help Moore will get there. They barely did it against Myles Garrett last year so I don’t think they change their approach drastically for this game.

But Pat Meyer’s system has the guards helping the tackles a lot more than what Adrian Klemm did. Centers have more 1v1 pass pro responsibility. So when the center is sliding to Moore, he can’t get beat around the edge. Cheat a bit knowing you’ll have inside help. That’s going to be the key.

i58: If you had to guess right now, who would you say will be the 2nd leading rusher on the team this year?
Warren, the WRs (as a group) or the QBs (as a group)

Alex: Hmm, good question. Let’s assume Najee Harris stays healthy or else it’ll probably be Warren. I’ll say it’s quarterbacks since sacks come out of passing yards and not rushing yards like in college. Probably a lot of running these quarterbacks will do behind this offensive line. And there will be games where there’s some free real estate against man coverage and Trubisky scrambles for 11 yards or something. He ran for over 400 yards the one year in Chicago. No WR is coming close to that and even collectively, that’s a big ask.

But it’s a fun question. I sorta wrestled with that one.

Henning: Hey Alex, considering Mitches lack of success under pressure. Isn’t Kenny just the flat out better option right now? Looked better in pre season, looks like the better player right now and his strengths are more suited to the steelers offense with our OL being a major weakness.

Alex: I dunno, I thought Trubisky did well under pressure. Sometimes avoiding the sack and all the negatives that come with that is the definition of success. I’d start Pickett just because he’s ready to start but they like Trubisky’s experience and leadership and intangibles and he was always their Plan A until he gave them a reason to look towards Plan B. That’s why he’s starting.



Wonderful article on Coach Burton and his personal thoughts and insights on his internship with the team. Too bad positive stories don’t generate the comments.

Question about preseason and if there is anything to be learned about the OC Canada? I know vanilla defense and offense as well, 3 competent QBs, bad offensive line etc. go into the evaluation but I thought in spite of all the disclaimers the offense looked smoother then any preseason I can remember. Of course, the first rest test is Sunday but your thoughts please?

Alex: Thank you! Glad you enjoyed. It did get a lot of reads so that’s good news. No, I don’t think there’s a lot new to learn about Canada. I know some tried to act like Pittsburgh was doing things radically different a year ago, unshackled by Ben’s retirement, but that wasn’t really true. It was “more of.” More under center, more playaction, more boots, more receiver runs, probably the same-ish motion and it’ll certainly be more effective. What Trubisky/Pickett can do is a lot more in-line with Canada and this will be Canada’s show this year with the QBs playing inside his structure as opposed to the other way around like last year. But I didn’t learn much new about him as an OC, other than he’s probably more comfortable going into his second year.

HardPunkKore: Thanks for all the coverage during the off season and camp. What are your expectations for some of the players? Namely, the guys or position groups that have been subject to heavy criticisms like Bush, Claypool, O line, and others?

Alex: Thanks man! That’s a pretty broad question. I think the line will slowly improve but struggle to be average and be an issue all year. Quarterback play will be volatile and up-and-down. Bush, he’ll be ok, better than people think, but average at best. Claypool will bounce back. Freiermuth will make more plays downfield. Run defense should be around Top Ten. Secondary will be stronger. Those are just some general thoughts off the top.

srdan: Who is a good comparison for Leal?

Alex: I didn’t do the pre-draft profile on Leal. Our Jonathan Heitritter comp’d him to Jonathan Franklin-Myers. For me, I’m not so sure. There’s some Ogunjobi to his game but Leal is probably a bit more athletic overall. If you want to talk high-end, he’s probably got some shades of Sheldon Richardson. Scheme-versatile, athletic penetrators with some unsteady run defense.

jger15: What is the most likely thing to surprise the general public who has not followed the team as closely after week 1?

Alex: Surprises can be tough to predict. Or else they wouldn’t be surprises. Maybe just the secondary being in a better place than a year ago, though I think people generally believe that. I don’t see anything big-picture that I expect that’s radically different from the general public. I think this offense will struggle and replacing Ben with a mobile QB like Trubisky isn’t a cure-all. This offense will be average at best and have a lot of growing pains with how new/young they are.

Jerry Reid: I probably missed it, but did you or someone else do a compilation of first downs per qb this preseason?

Alex: We did not. Are you referring to how many first downs the QBs created (passing/scrambles) or how many the offensive had while that QB was on the field? Either way, I don’t have that info off-hand.

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