Ask Alex: Steelers’ Mailbag

Welcome back to the mailbag. Big week ahead of us.

To your questions!

falconsaftey43: What’s up with Bryant? Are teams just playing way off him now and he can’t do anything else? Screen passes he’s super hesitant and just seems to wait to be tackled. Only thing he seems to be able to accomplish is a couple 9 yard outs per game.

Alex: That’s a really good question. I’m at a loss for words as to what’s going on. You’re right, he definitely isn’t playing like his old self. I don’t get it. I’m still seeing effort from the guy. He’s just incredibly passive. And that’s after apparently putting on 20 pounds of muscle.

Steeler B: Is Gilbert coming back?

Alex Sure, why wouldn’t he be? Back Monday morning.

treeher: Alex: Do you agree with Sharp Football Analysis?

Alex: I’m not going to post the whole comment because there’s a whole lot there. Let me sum up and address it in chunks.

The Steelers pass the ball too often vs the Patriots

I think that stat needs extra context. Obviously, anytime you’re losing, and three of the four are double-digit losses (the only one that wasn’t had the Steelers make it a 7 point game with two seconds left), you’re going to throw the ball. A lot. Balance, gameplan goes out the window. It’s all about circumstance. So you’re seeing a a skewed stat there. I don’t put any stock into it, at least, not in the overly simplistic way it’s presented.

The Steelers are passing the ball too often on their win streak

For starters, it’s working, so it’s hard to be mad about it. You think the Patriots care about balance? Why, for that matter, does anyone? I care about what’s effective. Throw it 50 times, run it 50, whatever it takes to move the ball and put up points.

And again, game circumstance is going to change things. The Steelers had to rally against the Colts, rally against the Ravens. That lends itself to throwing the ball more often. Teams like Baltimore and Green Bay have good run defenses. Why throw yourself into a brick wall? You have a QB at the top of his game, a WR in the MVP conversation. No one ever told Tom Brady to handoff more often.

And passes alone don’t tell the whole story. A screen is a run. An RPO is a potential run. A checkdown is usually like a run but better. I care about Le’Veon Bell getting involved in the offense. If that means substituting 10 carries for 10 catches, I have no problem with that. It’s no coincidence Roethlisberger has been playing out of his mind once Bell got the ball a ton in the pass game, so much so that he’s back on track to set a career high for receptions in a season (92).

That’s the gist of the rest of it. Don’t pass too much but don’t run on first down either. So Sharp is talking out of both sides of his mouth. It sounds good and sure, there’s a basic level of truth you could apply to any game, but I am going to ignore the bulk of it. You should, too.

Zach6432: Win on Sunday and play the Ravens after the bye or lose on Sunday and play the Chiefs? Home field advantage is nice, but I like the match up of playing the chiefs and the Pats having to play the Ravens.

Alex: For real? Am I being Punk’d? Let me quote Al Davis.

Just win, baby.

I like winning. The matchups will handle themselves.

ThatGuy: 

Do you think Joe Haden plays Sunday? Does him playing determine when/if they play man coverage and how much they play it?

Alex: My guess? No, he doesn’t. To the second part, no, I don’t think it changes much of the scheme. A guy like Cam Sutton was brought in because they liked his man coverage ability. Ditto Sensabaugh. Effectiveness is a different story but the playcalling isn’t going to dramatically differ.

And I am fully expecting the Patriots to spread the field out of empty. That’s going to put the Steelers in man or essentially, matchup zone (man coverage).

Spencer Krick: What time of the year do you enjoy blahging the most? (writing about the games as the Steelers are playing or evaluating prospects)

Alex: Hmm…good question. I love it all, truthfully. Except for like, the dead of summer. June and July (before camp) are the worst. My articles essentially turn into Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Kent Graham. I’m not proud of it.

Camp is my Christmas. I feel a lot more active, closer to the team, and that fresh football smell is back. But I love it all.

Bill Sechrengost: If the Steelers beat the Patriots, do they clinch home field in the playoffs no matter what? If so, do you think they will rest anyone for two games (maybe guys that are banged up?)?

Alex: Jacksonville has to lose too. If they both win, then the Steelers have to win one of the final two (Houston, Cleveland). Once everything is locked up, yes, there will be plenty of rest. Don’t expect to see many starters Week 17.

Intense Camel: If you were the coach would you try Dupree at ILB?

Alex: Nope. Like I wrote yesterday, I’m not giving up on Dupree. One of the knocks on his are his instincts, how quick he is to diagnose. Moving him inside with more clutter, more moving pieces, more reads…how is that going to help him? People who dog on him against the run and advocate for him to play ILB should be put in a straight jacket.

Steel Pierogie: Name a quarterback Steelers could possibly draft this year. Too soon?

Alex: Ehhh…I’m not the guy you should be asking right now. Baker Mayfield seems like he would fit here. They have done a lot of homework on Josh Allen.

Darth Blount 47: 

Hey, Alex!

Given recent developments and the passage of more time to analyze, which NFC team would you now LEAST like to meet in a Super Bowl and why?

And of the more LIKELY teams with a shot, who would you MOST like to see over there against us — because you think the Steelers match up really well?

Alex: Keep in mind I’ve given this zero thought until you just asked it.

Does Carolina count as a team likely to make it? If so, probably then. Still a young secondary. No weapons on the outside for their cornerbacks. A pass rush that isn’t that great.

Least want to matchup against? New Orleans, honestly. The defense is improving and I just don’t trust this time to tackle Kamara/Ingram in space. Seattle would also be tough because that front four is sick. I know their line is a pile of puddy but if the Steelers can’t get pressure on Russell Wilson, I’ll cry my eyes out.

MoreRingsThanYourTeam: If we win the next two games, there is a chance we rest our starters vs the annual end-of-season Browns game. How likely is this decision and do you think the players have a say so in whether or not they want to to play? For example, Antonio Brown is chasing 2,000 yards this season. Does he play if he wants to?

Alex: They won’t have a choice. Coaches will sit them. I don’t care if AB is 50 yards away. The team has a united goal. They came here to win Super Bowls. Not chase stats. Week 17, they’re sitting.

Bryant Eng: Will we see TJ Watt play man against Gronkowski? If the Steelers go with a match zone scheme, which they commonly do, I can see Watt being effective against Gronk. I’m so surprised at how fluid/capable he has been in pass coverage this season.

Alex: When you don’t have one good option to defend Gronk, and the Steelers definitely don’t, you’re going to have to throw the kitchen sink at it. One strategy won’t be enough. So sure, Watt might see him some. But remember, Watt is often going to be on the other side of Gronk. So you can’t do it all the time. Maybe some 3rd down stuff when he’s more likely to be aligned off ball.

Grant Humphrey: Hey Alex,
Do you have a score prediction for this weekend’s game?

Alex: I will. You’ll just have to check out Sunday’s article for it. 9:30 AM sharp. Be there!

Sdale: Not trying to heap on Bryant, but one thing I noticed in the Ravens game and a couple of other receptions is that, when we have 10 yards to go, he seems to be running a 9 yard routes. Is that by design, with the assumption that he’ll get the extra yard(s) with RAC? Or, is he just not running a good route? I like that he’s running multiple patterns now, but I was curious if his technique as a route runner has improved?

Alex: To be honest, I really haven’t noticed. I’d have to look closer. If you have any specific plays, let me know.

MP34: Alex, I’m never a fan of “move this guy to this new position”. With that said, situationally, could Bud Dupree or TJ Watt be used to cover Gronk? Or, is it still better to have a DB do this? If YOU had the task as defensive coordinator, what would you do?

Alex: Similar to what the other guy was asking. It’s a multi-throng approach. You can’t have just one guy shadow because you don’t have one guy capable of doing it. So some of it is Davis. Some Dupree. Some Watt on third down. A lot of jamming him. A lot of bracket. You have to be creative.

Phil Brenneman II: 

What is your take on the ineffectivesness of DL these past 2 weeks? Or better worded, maybe “lack of previous super effectiveness”?

And also, how much of said lack do you attribute to being run on? I know a lot of media and posters chalk up the easier answer to Shazier being gone but there were big games with him on the field as well.

Alex: I am still peeved at what Butler has done with the pre-snap alignment. Some weird stuff. Like what I dove into in my talk to the tape a week ago. And the clip I posted today.

I think a lot of what Butler did stressed the heck out of the DL and put them in a very tough spot. They need to play better, and absolutely, the loss of Shazier is a killer, but you’re right, it’s too easy/lazy to say that is the only reason why.

And a team like Baltimore runs a lot of outside zone, something the Steelers have always struggled with. Mainly due to alignment.

srdan: If you could choose one to of these to guarabtee a win this weekend, which do you choose?
A-defense has four sacks
B-wr not named Brown goes for 120 and a td

Alex: Door A, for sure. Nervous about the lack of pressure the defense has gotten. A big performance there would ease my mind. And Steeler Nation’s.

Michael James: What’s your opinion on Keith Butler? What would you say if they were playing soft-zone most of the time once again this Sunday (getting murdered again)?

Alex: I usually wait until the end of the year to make those assessments. Mainly because what you said in the second part. Butler is mostly judged, by the fanbase at least, how he does against New England. What if he does great? Or terrible? So what I think now doesn’t really matter because it’s subject to change.

stan: Do you think Haden will be healthy enough to play some nickel downs this week?

Alex: My guess is that if he does play, it’ll be an all-situations thing. Either that means every snap or maybe, rotating in every other series. But it won’t be stratified like nickel vs base.

Marcel Chris Chauvet: Do the Steelers keep it under 75 yards in total yards accrued in penalties this week? I think it could be an important stat in a close game and the officiating crew has already been mentioned for their flag happy tendencies.

Alex: Considering who is reffing the game, I’m not holding my breath.

NickSteelerFan: Hey Alex! Are you happier with Bell’s use the past few weeks? Run 10-20ish times and catch 10ish passes as opposed to running it 30+ times? I love it because it gets him the ball in space and I feel like it isn’t as hard on his body.

Alex: Sure, it’s not like I am dying for Bell to run it 30 times a game and him be a crumpled mess by the playoffs. But you give him the ball as much as you have to. When you’re losing, you run less, so he gets fewer carries. I am happy he’s touching the ball in the passing game as much as he is. That’s a huge benefit. Playmaker getting the ball, high efficiency play, and it means Ben is making good decisions. Win-win-win.

The Tony: Does Harrison dress? If so, how many snaps will he play? Last week was knocking the dust off.

Alex: Maybe. It’s really dependent on the injury report. Is there an open spot for him? Could be a tight squeeze if Haden is ready. Even if he does, you’re again looking at about 8-12 snaps. Nothing crazy.


One of my favorite chats of the year. Thanks for stopping by.

About the Author

Alex Kozora
Full-time blogger from mom's basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.
  • falconsaftey43

    What’s up with Bryant? Are teams just playing way off him now and he can’t do anything else? Screen passes he’s super hesitant and just seems to wait to be tackled. Only thing he seems to be able to accomplish is a couple 9 yard outs per game.

  • Steeler B

    Is Gilbert coming back?

  • treeher

    Alex: Do you agree with Sharp Football Analysis?

    The Steelers have played 4 games against the Patriots since 2013 and lost all 4. Le’Veon Bell played in 3 of those games, and averaged a paltry 14 carries per game. Pittsburgh needs to stay balanced offensively (obviously pass the ball as well), but they must shift from the pass-heavy play calling (72% pass) of the last 4 weeks and commit to a more run-styled approach, one which avoids frequent missed deep shots that gain 0 yards on early downs. If they choose to use a higher run rate, the Steelers should be able to avoid third and long situations, and either stay in 3rd and short situations (where they can run with high success against the Patriots weakness) or bypass 3rd downs altogether. Staying on the field, converting first downs and scoring points while keeping Tom Brady on the sideline should be a goal, and it will be achieved easiest if Pittsburgh commits to a more balanced strategy, with far more rushing plays than have been called recently.

    Over the past month, the Steelers have gone 72% pass overall, including 71% when the game is within one-score. Both lead the NFL by far, with the average being only 56%. This represents a massive change from the Steelers’ prior 4 games, when they went pass just 47% of the time (second least often) when the game was within one-score.

    The Steelers will need to resist the urge to be pass heavy against this Patriots defense. The Patriots pass defense ranks 24th(against the 14th rated schedule), but since week 8 they’ve allowed just a 40% success rate on passes, the 4th best in the league (down from 54% through week 7, which ranked 31st in the league).

    While the Patriots pass defense has improved tremendously (in part due to easier pass offenses faced) their run defense has struggled tremendously. While the pass defense has ranked 4th since week 8, their run defense ranks worst in the league, allowing 57% of all runs to grade as successful. But the schedule-adjusted numbers are even worse:

    In 3 games against the run offenses of the Dolphins (#31) and the Broncos (#26) the Patriots allowed those teams to run 5% above their average in success rate. But in 3 games against the run offense of the Bills, Raiders and Chargers, the Patriots allowed those teams to perform 28% better than average in success rate, with an average success rate of 69%. While the Patriots won these 3 games, and two of them by wide margins, this rushing success for these teams was not isolated to garbage time in the second half. Even in the first half, the Patriots allowed 73% of runs to grade as successful to those 3 teams, including a massive 83% on second and third downs.

    The Steelers should not get too predictable with first down runs, as the Patriots are at their best defending first down runs. But the Steelers cannot be 69% pass on first down, which they have been over their last 4 games (which is 22% above average and 12% over the second most pass heavy team on first down). The goal for the Steelers in this game needs to be to avoid “3rd and obvious” passing downs. The Patriots pass defense is allowing an incredible 27% success rate on 3rd down passes since week 8, which is the 3rd best in the league (behind only the Jaguars and Vikings). Meanwhile, the Patriots are allowing a 72% success rate on 3rd down runs, the worst in the NFL.

  • Zach6432

    Win on Sunday and play the Ravens after the bye or lose on Sunday and play the Chiefs? Home field advantage is nice, but I like the match up of playing the chiefs and the Pats having to play the Ravens.

  • ThatGuy

    Do you think Joe Haden plays Sunday? Does him playing determine when/if they play man coverage and how much they play it?

  • Spencer Krick

    What time of the year do you enjoy blahging the most? (writing about the games as the Steelers are playing or evaluating prospects)

  • Bill Sechrengost

    If the Steelers beat the Patriots, do they clinch home field in the playoffs no matter what? If so, do you think they will rest anyone for two games (maybe guys that are banged up?)?

  • falconsaftey43

    Bryant last 4 weeks:
    targets 22 (30th)
    rec 14 (26th)
    yards 113 (62nd)
    TDs 1 (28th)
    Y/R 8.07 (88th)

  • Intense Camel

    If you were the coach would you try Dupree at ILB? Do you think they should?

  • SteelPierogie

    Name a quarterback Steelers could possibly draft this year. Too soon?

  • Darth Blount 47

    Hey, Alex!

    Given recent developments and the passage of more time to analyze, which NFC team would you now LEAST like to meet in a Super Bowl and why?

    And of the more LIKELY teams with a shot, who would you MOST like to see over there against us — because you think the Steelers match up really well?

  • falconsaftey43

    wow, that’s a novel. I love stats man, and that was even a lot for me to digest.

    My take, the Steelers offense was bad till they started letting Ben sling it around the last few weeks. I keep throwing it. So much can skew the stats you’re referencing it’s hard to really get a feel. Like their 3rd down success rates, how do their distances to go compare to the rest of the league? Things like that.

    Ben and AB and Bell as a receiver have been our best assets by far on offense; don’t game plan NOT to use them. Doesn’t mean you can’t run it, but I’d lean more passing. Ben has been incredible lately.

  • MoreRingsThanYourTeam

    If we win the next two games, there is a chance we rest our starters vs the annual end-of-season Browns game. How likely is this decision and do you think the players have a say so in whether or not they want to to play? For example, Antonio Brown is chasing 2,000 yards this season. Does he play if he wants to?

  • Spencer Krick

    Oh! Another one!

    If Haden and Coty can’t go, do you think they’ll have a rotation of Gay and Sutton on the outside?

  • Bryant Eng

    Will we see TJ Watt play man against Gronkowski? If the Steelers go with a match zone scheme, which they commonly do, I can see Watt being effective against Gronk. I’m so surprised at how fluid/capable he has been in pass coverage this season.

  • Grant Humphrey

    Hey Alex,
    Do you have a score prediction for this weekend’s game?

  • Sdale

    Not trying to heap on Bryant, but one thing I noticed in the Ravens game and a couple of other receptions is that, when we have 10 yards to go, he seems to be running a 9 yard routes. Is that by design, with the assumption that he’ll get the extra yard(s) with RAC? Or, is he just not running a good route? I like that he’s running multiple patterns now, but I was curious if his technique as a route runner has improved?

  • MP34

    Alex, I’m never a fan of “move this guy to this new position”. With that said, situationally, could Bud Dupree or TJ Watt be used to cover Gronk? Or, is it still better to have a DB do this? If YOU had the task as defensive coordinator, what would you do?

  • treeher

    I think your analysis and Alex’s are spot on.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    What is your take on the ineffectivesness of DL these past 2 weeks? Or better worded, maybe “lack of previous super effectiveness”?

    And also, how much of said lack do you attribute to being run on? I know a lot of media and posters chalk up the easier answer to Shazier being gone but there were big games with him on the field as well.

  • Grant Humphrey

    Hey Alex,
    We saw Watt and Harrison on the field at the same time on that final play against the Ravens. Could we possibly see more of that in future games?

  • srdan

    If you could choose one to of these to guarabtee a win this weekend, which do you choose?
    A-defense has four sacks
    B-wr not named Brown goes for 120 and a td

  • Michael James

    What’s your opinion on Keith Butler? What would you say if they were playing soft-zone most of the time once again this Sunday (getting murdered again)?

  • NickSteelerFan

    Hey Alex! Are you happier with Bell’s use the past few weeks? Run 10-20ish times and catch 10ish passes as opposed to running it 30+ times? I love it because it gets him the ball in space and I feel like it isn’t as hard on his body.

  • stan

    Do you think Haden will be healthy enough to play some nickel downs this week?

  • Marcel Chris Chauvet

    Do the Steelers keep it under 75 yards in total yards accrued in penalties this week? I think it could be an important stat in a close game and the officiating crew has already been mentioned for their flag happy tendencies.

  • Alex Kozora

    I don’t know about Deebo but I do think Watt gets a couple more reps than usual at LOLB

  • Sam Clonch

    I could care less if the #2 receiver had 70 yards, cause #3 will have 55, #4 45, and of course AB with 175. Wanna crunch Tommy up though!

  • Alex Kozora

    No, I think Sutton is full-time at LCB.

  • The Tony

    Does Harrison dress? If so, how many snaps will he play? Last week was knocking the dust off.

  • Sam Clonch

    Situational. GB and Balt both have good run defenses. NE is pretty soft on the run, giving up a league worst 5 yards a rush. And maybe Alan Branch sits out now too? I could see it being more balanced this week, but whatever works is what they should do.

  • Sam Clonch

    Read that NE likely down to it’s 3rd string RT….

  • Gloria Burke

    Great answers, Alex…Personally, I’m tired of the pundits talking talking talking. Why even play the game if the Steelers can’t win it????? Last year was last year. This year is NOW. Different team, more options offensively, Ben’s playing at an amazing level. Only thing I think would make a noticeable difference is having Ryan there on defense, too. Let’s go already. Steelers 34-24.

  • Sam Clonch

    You must have been hanging out with DWill, lol!

  • Matt Manzo

    Great questions and answers this week! Bummed I missed it!

  • Alex Kozora

    Fire away, Matt!

  • TroymanianDevil

    Lack of confidence is the only thing I can think of.
    And the whole situation with Juju can’t help and then when he drops passes, you can see it affecting him by his body language

  • walter

    Could it be possible that he is still struggling with being drug free and its causing lack of confidence and passiveness?

  • WeWantDaTruth

    Status on Vance McDonald for the Pats game?

  • PaeperCup

    Josh Allen? Bleh. He’s got the build, but had a garbage year.

  • TroymanianDevil

    I’m not a drug expert in any way so I can’t really say for sure. But from the small knowledge I do have, it’s definitely something I’d say it’s quite possible that it’s factoring into the whole situation

  • Alex Kozora

    Likely out

  • Bonnie Powell

    Could adding the muscle hurt him more than help? He looks uncoordinated now, esp. after being tackled- his legs fly everywhich way – really looke wierd.