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Ask Alex: Steelers’ Mailbag

Welcome back to the mailbag. Let me know what’s on your mind.

To your questions!

Shai Landesman: If Gilbert is out for an extended period of time, how much does that hurt the offense? Is there anything schematically they won’t do with Hubbard in there?

Alex: It hurts the offense and yes, you can probably expect Gilbert out until after the bye. In terms of schematics, not really, with the team’s next man up mentality and Hubbard being comfortable with the position. But there’s an obvious drop off in talent. From one of the best RTs in the game to a fringe guy, no doubt the offense feels it. Hubbard did well coming in to pinch hit last week though.

PghDSF: Are the Bengals really that good on defense or is it more about the bad teams that they have played?

Alex: I am actually going to watch them tonight. But yeah, they’re a good unit. Have rare length/size along the defensive ends. Dunlap/Johnson are a unique group. Get in the way of a lot of throwing lanes and they’re tough to block in the run game (hope Foster is able to go so Finney can work as TE-eligible).

They like to play a lot of man coverage, especially 2 Man, which Roethlisberger has always struggled against. And they have a good DC who will show a lot of looks. Stress the A gaps and force you to work inside/out. Lot of talent, too across the board including some new faces, like Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson. Two guys who didn’t fit the mold but are great athletes. And they have depth, especially up front, to keep guys fresh.

paddy: All the way from Northern Ireland, any reason why dupree just gets run up the arc every snap? Should he not have a counter developed by now?

Alex: You’re right, he’s gotta work on variety. Set his moves up better and know when to use counters. Like I wrote on Monday, you don’t need five different moves. Two good ones is enough but right now, Dupree is still trying to master one.

But in his defense, he hasn’t had the reps most guys at this point, third season, have by now. Injuries have stunted that growth.

SteelDoDo: I can’t figure out for the life of me why they don’t try to incorporate Conner into the backfield a little more. I understand that Bell is a stud, but wouldn’t it make sense to try to try to keep him relatively fresh for the postseason AND to get Conner some more game time experience? Instead of a 35 to 2 touch ratio like against the Chiefs, why not 25 to 10? Especially if we have a somewhat comfortable lead.

Alex: I think you answered your own question. Bell is the stud. You saw what happened in the Jaguars’ game, Conner blowing that pass pro which led to the interception.

And Conner has gotten some work in. He hasn’t been totally left on the shelf. Sure, for a game where the Steelers get a big lead, Bell’s workload is likely to be reduced but that hasn’t happened yet. The goal is to win now so you can rest later.

John: Why can’t the Steelers figure out how to use Eli Rogers and/or Justin Hunter? Both have some value. Rogers as an underneath guy and Hunter as a red zone threat and third down guy. Is it really that hard?

Alex: Eli, I get the question, but Hunter, he really doesn’t have value. There aren’t many “red zone” only receivers in the NFL. That’s just too niche. And putting Hunter out there means taking someone else off. Someone more talented. Steelers already have a big receiver in Bryant, have a tough, over-the-middle type in JuJu, and obviously AB. Hunter doesn’t fit and hasn’t shown the detail or consistency to make him someone you should trust, especially in a critical area of the field like that.

Eli is a product of JuJu playing so well. So snaps are just hard to find. He’s the 4th WR. Not a lot of those guys on any team see a lot of snaps.

Stas: Do you think Steelers may make an effort to run right at Burfict to keep him off Ben/Bell (understanding that he can still tackle Bell illegally in this case…)? But at least lay a lineman on him early and often?

Alex: Obviously, Burfict is a really good player but I don’t think you treat him any different. I mean, he’s the MIKE linebacker so it’s hard to run away from him either direction. You treat him the way you treat any other linebacker. There’s nothing that unique about it. He’s unavoidable.

Xi37: Alex, I assume you watch the all-22 tape and with that in mind, have you seen the WRs not be able to get open for Ben this year? I find it hard to believe that they are that well covered, I think it is more a product of Ben’s poor field vision/play.

Alex: I understand your point and sure, there’s some truth to that. But I think when you ask a big, broad question like that, the answer is similarly vague. It’s a combination. There have been times where no one has gotten free. But there’s times where Ben has screwed up. Times where the playcall sent the progression a different direction. Times where Ben has identified an open receiver but pressure screws it up (like JuJu vs Jacksonville).

It’s multi-layered, as if often the case when you’re talking about something big-picture like the entire passing game.

John Noh: Hey Alex, personal question. How often do you go out to Heinz Field to watch the Steelers games?

Alex: Not often. Especially now that I work here, there’s really no point. As soon as the game ends, the articles go up. But honestly, I don’t have a big desire to go anyway. There’s traffic and the McLumina does not like to sit idle (gets really hot). It’s expensive. Later in the year, it’s cold (I’m from Florida – summer person through and through). You don’t get good replays and drunk Yinzers spill their IC Light’s on you.

I was at Heinz for the training camp practice this year. But before that, I think the last game I went to was years ago. I was at a Colts’ preseason game in I think Luck’s rookie year? I was at the awful Raiders loss years ago where Ryan Mundy had that penalty and Gradkowski beat them. Not fun.

Jeff McNeill: How has the team performed overall as compared to your expectations coming into the season?

Alex: Obviously, the KC win helped soothe concerns but they’ve still underwhelmed. Run defense not nearly as consistent as it should be. Pass defense looks good on paper but still seeing flaws on tape quarterbacks haven’t been able to expose yet. And the offense…well you know the story there.

This should be an undefeated team. But here we are.

CP72: Alex,
Is a fair to say the Steelers go with to much light personnel inside the 10 yard line?

Alex: Oh I dunno, I’d have to really look into it. Going heavy doesn’t always mean success. Neither does running the ball. My philosophy is the team has the weapons to be successful out of any look. So I care more about the execution than I do the grouping, in most cases at least.

Jeff Papiernik: True or False: Ben will put up multiple 3 TD games this year.

Alex: Definitely true. Last time he failed to do so was 2008. Too many weapons. He’ll have some big games. It probably won’t be five such games but definitely at least a pair.

T3xassteelers: Alex what’s been your impression on Haden? I haven’t heard his name hardly called all year.. yet PFF isn’t too fond. Idk how when he’s hardly allowed anything!

Alex: He’s been impressive. Any loss of speed hasn’t hurt him too much and you can see he’s picked up the offense. Had a bit of a rocky start but settled down. I just like his effort and how he plays the run, too. He’s honestly a great embodiment of what a Steelers’ corner is supposed to be. So all is well.

PaeperCup: 

If you had to field an 12 players for an 8 man team, what Steelers would you pick?

I’ll get these out of the way for you. Ben, AB, Bell, Shazier.

Alex: Ooh, good question.

Yes to those four.

Give me Bryant, too. 6’4 230 in open grass? He can smoke all the weed he wants as long as he’s on my team. So that’s a fifth.

Gotta get some defenders. Throw Heyward and Watt on that list. High effort, physical guys. And I need someone in the secondary. I’ll take Sean Davis. Athletic, good IQ, can cover man to man or play single high.

On offense, Cam and Watt (former TE) are my OL. Ben QB, rest receivers.

Defensively, Heyward/Watt/Shazier up front. AB/Bryant my corners. Davis my safety. Bell another linebacker. Ben on the sidelines working on his golf swing.

BryantEng: Is there any way Cameron Sutton see defensive snaps this year? and do SteelersDepot senior writers qualify for game day press passes?

Alex: It’d be tough for Sutton. Not sure what the path is. Best chance is to take away dime snaps from William Gay but Gay is playing well and dime hasn’t been an issue. Think you keep it as is.

No, we aren’t credentialed. But that’s fine – we don’t need to get the same quotes as the 10 other guys. Redundant. I appreciate you calling us “senior writers.” Makes me feel important (I’m not – just a blahgher).

falconsaftey43: 

A lot of talk recently about run vs pass in the close redzone so I looked up some stats.
Redzone, 5 yardline or closer, 2015-2017.
NFL avg is a TD on 41% of passes and 41% of runs.
Ben 47% (8th min 10 atmps), Brady 44% (13th), Rodgers 52%(6th), Mariota 64% (1st)

Bell rushing inside the 5 scores a TD on 73% of rushes.
Bell just so happens to be 1st in the league with that 73% (min 10 attempts).

So league wide might not matter much if you run or pass, and Ben is good in the Redzone…but maybe run a little more with Bell.

Alex: All good stats, falcon, as we’ve come to expect. It’s important to note that red zone and inside the five are looked at differently by coaches. The red zone itself is broken up into different parts, as Alex Kirby referenced in his article.

I don’t think that detracts from your point but if you look at overall red zone work, heading into last week, Bell was tops in the league and touching the ball on half the Steelers’ red zone snaps. So he’s gotten a lot of work, more than anyone else in the NFL.

I mean, I’m all for giving the ball to 26. But sometimes, it’s just going to be dependent on what the defense gives you. You can bet teams know how good Bell is inside the five and they’re naturally trying to stop the run anyway. So offenses have to respond.

Like the play Ben checked out of. Chiefs came out with 4 DL with the Steelers in 12 personnel. The Chiefs responded with a heavier grouping than what the Steelers presented. So Ben decided to throw. On paper, that makes sense.

Robbie: IS it me or have they not really run that fake screen, up the seam pass to a TE that seemed good for 20 yards once a game the last couple years? Also am I the only one which blows steam once we get inside the 5 and don’t run the ball?

Alex: I don’t have the numbers but I know they’ve run it. Just doesn’t always work. Did it twice against Jacksonville. First was a bad throw by Ben incomplete to Vance. Think the second wasn’t open at all and Ben threw it somewhere else.

You just can’t run those plays too often. It’s like dessert. Sweet to have but if it’s at every meal, you’re going to get sick. Some plays you shelve for when you need them most. Sometimes it’s gameplan dependent, how aggressive your opponent is. Sometimes it’s based on how well you’re running the regular bubble screen. It’s still in the playbook though, I promise you that.

Kevin Reich: 1st round pick on a qb, later round or wait and see how Ben plays?

Alex: Kevin, the good news is that that decision doesn’t have to be made today. We can wait. See how Ben plays, see how the team does, see if Ben comes back, see how the roster is constructed next year. All before the Steelers have to make a draft day decision. Check back in five months.


Great chat. Thanks guys, talk next Thursday!

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