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Chat with Dejan Kovacevic: Sept. 20, 2013

| Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, 1:11 p.m.

Dejan Kovacevic: (Spoken in best Mike Tomlin impersonation) Good afternoon.

Comment From Shane: Tonight's battle of Liriano vs. Latos is huge! I'm thinking this game sets the tone for the remaining games between these two teams. Going to be fun, and perhaps more contentious that the recent games against the Cards. Thoughts?

Dejan Kovacevic: This is it, Shane. This is what the pennant race is really all about, the head-to-head matchup with a team you genuinely don't like and a couple of pitchers capable of totally bringing it. Couldn't agree more. Should be a magnificent weekend at PNC Park.

I've got Pirates taking the first two, dropping Sunday with Jeff Locke. But I'm wrong, like, all the time, so who knows?

Comment From Joseph: What does Clint tell his team in the pregame talk this evening for this weekend? It's pretty obvious what is at stake, but what does the manager say tonight?

Dejan Kovacevic: It isn't football. The notion that managers have to give these huge NFL Films-type pep talks is about as off as the notion — which I was hearing plenty earlier in the week — that when baseball teams struggle to score, they aren't trying hard enough or lack energy.

Baseball has a different type of intensity that's required.

So, to answer your question, Clint will almost surely change nothing in advance of this. That's been his MO all along. Every game matters.

Comment From Bernard: Your thoughts on the current relationship b/w Ben and Haley?

Dejan Kovacevic: TBA, man. That's what I've got to say on that right now. Just TBA.

Ben is doing and saying all the right things. Seriously, he's even finding a way to speak in code about his offensive line being lousy and his receivers not fighting through coverage to get open, and he's doing it all with a smile. When I asked him Monday night in Cincinnati if he called all his own plays on the TD drive, he just smile and coolly said yes.

The guy's a competitor. The circumstances will need to change — drastically — for that to keep up.

Comment From BlackandGold: Do the Steelers beat the Bears, or will they be 0-3 to start the season? The defense looks okay, but the offense is broken.

Dejan Kovacevic: I think you're going to see a much better Steelers team on Sunday night. Not prepared to predict a W, because Chicago's 2-0 and could up its own game, as well. But I do think the embarrassing phase of the offense is going to be buried, if only because of the return of Heath Miller and — finally, maybe — the addition of Markus Wheaton.

Comment From Jason81: Simon Despres...Pittsburgh or Wilkes-Barre to start the year?

Dejan Kovacevic: The circumstances right now have him as a very strong possibility to start out in Wilkes-Barre, in part because he can go without having to clear waivers, in part because he still hasn't exactly forced his way onto the roster.

As for his conditioning, I know what the Penguins have said about it after the fact, but there he was again last night badly trailing the backcheck in overtime, moving Paul Steigerwald to say on TV: “And now Despres is really dragging to get back!”

Poor cardio doesn't show itself in body-fat tests or in a couple of scrimmages. It shows itself when pushed to the max, whether in an OT or over 82 games.

Comment From Keith: Any word on the NFL on an apology for the blown tripping call? That was terrible and seemed like they discussed it for a while and still called it that is what made it more frustrating. Although not as frustrating as the Steelers offense.

Dejan Kovacevic: I'll never understand any clamor for public apologies for blown calls. Not in any sport. Changes nothing. Satisfies some vengeful emotions and nothing more.

Officials in all sports are graded. If that ref gets downgraded, he loses money. And if that happens, in all likelihood, we'll never know about it but still manage quite nicely with our lives, anyway.

But no, I haven't heard of any such thing. Nor have I heard that the Steelers sought it.

Comment From Bernard: The WRs don't appear to be getting any separation from the Dbs, at least from the TV coverage. If so, why not (simply lack of speed at the position)?

Dejan Kovacevic: They aren't battling, plain and simple. On one deep ball Ben tried for Emmanuel Sanders in Cincy, the play ran right along the sideline just in front of the press box. You could see right after the snap it wouldn't work because Sanders allowed himself to get blown way off the route with the slightest of right-shoulder chips from the Bengals CB. It actually looked pretty striking, though I'm not sure if they showed it on TV.

What you did see on TV, I'm sure, is where Ben's ball landed, and everyone would have been huffing about another overthrow. Ben did have overthrows in this game, but he also had a few that fit into this category.

Sanders, specifically, really needs to pick it up. If he thinks he's going to sleepwalk through this season and get big money afterward just because the Patriots showed him nice toys this past summer, he's dreaming.

Comment From SDWC: Do you think Melancon is slipping? Even in his recent successful outings there have been more hard hit balls than in the first half of the season.

Trib Total Media: That was a strange outing the other night. It was very clear from the entire San Diego series that the Padres' advance scouts — to their considerable credit, being well out of the race — did terrific work against a non-division foe. With Melancon in particular, it's evident they instructed their right-handed batters to go inside-out on him, meaning to drive a ball that's running away from them into right field. That's all you saw, too, dink, dink, dink into right field.

In fairness, Melancon got a little stubborn and kept feeding that, maybe defiantly, but he'll need to adjust.

Wouldn't worry about him overall, though. Guy's been nothing shy of brilliant this year.

Comment From Groat2Maz2Strangeglove: Although I've not been a Tony Sanchez supporter, he has even me noticing his new found pitch blocking, his improved game calling, and, of course, his over-the-top defensive play yesterday. Any inside info on his chances to make Playoff roster over John Buck?

Dejan Kovacevic: I want Sanchez. I understood the move for Buck, not least of which is that the Mets wanted salary relief as part of the trade. But you go with the guy making the difference.

The catch is wonderful, but that's not why you make any such decision. The why comes from how he's caught and handled the staff of late. He's been very good, and Buck has been very not.

Comment From Matthew: Where will you be on September 29? In London or at Pnc Park for a potential division clincher?

Dejan Kovacevic: Actually, nothing's going on at PNC Park that day. The Pirates will be in Cincinnati for both teams' season finale on Sept. 29, and Joe Starkey will be the Trib's columnist on site, joining beat reporters Rob Biertempfel and Travis Sawchik.

I'll be in London for Steelers-Vikings because I do all Steelers games home and away, something I take very seriously in this role given their status in our city and the extremely limited number of games. For all we know, too — and this is parenthetical by comparison — it could be a huge game if they can handle the Bears and begin some kind of rebound.

Really looking forward to that, as well as revisiting my month-long home from last summer (Starbucks at old Tower Bridge Station) and experiencing an NFL game overseas for the first time.

If there's a baseball wild-card game involving the Pirates, I expect to be back — some portion of me, anyway — in time for that on that Tuesday.

Comment From Jake from Albany: Coming to pittsburgh from out of town to watch the Cincy series... some good places to eat?

Dejan Kovacevic: This is easier than ever these days, Jake. We used to have to single out individual places. Now, you just send someone to the fabulously revitalized Market Square, where you can pick from whatever food you like. Or draw a line from the Square to PNC Park and include all the great stuff on Sixth Street.

Comment From Mike P: When will the Steelers let Ben call his own plays. His no huddle offense seems to always give the team momentum, but they rarely use it?

Dejan Kovacevic: It won't be all the time. Mike Tomlin made that clear. Insisted it only works in short spurts. But Ben will have more chances, from the sound of it.

Comment From Mike: Dejan, will Hurdle ever get credit? No matter what he does, someone will find a way to blame a loss on him. To lead this team to 90+ wins seemed so unlikely at the beginning of the year, yet, he still gets undeserved criticism. Seems like a lock for manager of the year in my opinion though...

Dejan Kovacevic: I have a vote for that award this year, and I'm not supposed to tell you who I'm voting for, so I won't tell you that I'll be voting for Hurdle.

So stop asking.

Comment From Matty Ice: thoughts on Tyler Boyd?

Dejan Kovacevic: Looks like Pitt's first truly special player since Larry Fitzgerald, and that isn't hyperbole. This was the topic of a lot of our conversation in the Trib football vehicle ride to Cincinnati. And per Mark Kaboly, who covered a lot of Boyd's career in Clairton and knows him as well as anyone in town, the kid's actually got miles to go in terms of learning wide receiver and even some fundamentals of football. To call him raw at the position is a massive understatement.

What you've seen so far has been purely God-given, and it sure looks like God was generous in that regard.

Comment From Michael: What is your opinion on Jason Grilli, and how do you think the club will utilize him during playoffs?

Dejan Kovacevic: This is going to sound close to sacrilegious, but I really believe Grilli needs to show he's back to something approaching his old self in order to make the playoff roster. No one is owed anything. If he isn't healthy, he isn't helping.

That means he'll need to show the old 94-95 velocity on occasion, as well as a consistent diet of swings and misses. Fact is, Grilli's not very effective if he isn't getting a good percentage of his outs on strikeouts.

Comment From Bill: I know there is a lot of chatter with Haley being a problem with play calling and bad scheme but I honestly think his biggest problem is that the players don't believe in his scheme. You can see it on the field with Ben and now Antonio Brown. I think Haley has until week 4 to get this offense together with the bye week coming in week 5. Thoughts?

Dejan Kovacevic: Haley isn't going anywhere. They're the Steelers. Let's get that out of the way.

The point I'm glad you raised is that Haley's “a problem.” There's a difference between that and being “the problem.”

All too often on social media over the past week, I've heard people respond to criticism of Haley by saying he isn't “the problem.” Well, of course he isn't! Who in their right mind would suggest he was? For that matter, who has suggested he was?

It's a false argument being waged against absolutely nobody making it.

Haley is a problem. It really is possible to have injuries and substandard personnel and still make lousy play-calls.

Comment From Mike: Dejan, I know this seems unlikely, but is there any chance Gerit Cole pitches the wild card game? Liriano seems like he will be the man, but no one has been as consistent as Cole

Dejan Kovacevic: There is no chance of that. Hope you have a chance to check out my extended blog entry today on that very topic.

Comment From Killian: Is the team that the Penguins have on paper right now capable of winning the Stanley Cup? If not, what would you like to see Shero add before the trade deadline to make them Stanley Cup contenders?

Dejan Kovacevic: I don't believe that they are, but I believe they're positioned to be.

I don't believe that they are for the primary reason that they lack grit even by regular-season standards, never mind all the sandpaper you need to win 16 playoff games. That's got to change. It doesn't need to change in September or October, but Ray Shero has to address it by the deadline. Given his MO, I'm guessing that he will. This is not a Shero-like roster in that regard.

But from the standpoint of speed, skill and even a small injection of youth by finally giving Beau Bennett a real role, yeah, that plus all those best-player-in-the-world guys give you hope.

Comment From Toby: Any way Beau doesn't play with Geno and Neal?

Dejan Kovacevic: Only if Dan Bylsma isn't paying attention. And he is. Bennett's been really good. Looked good again last night, even without those guys.

Comment From JoeyBats: Looking at last weeks' chat “C. Hackenberg ==> “Has it all” what happenned? blame it on freshman UPS and DOWNS ? ...or something else. (not trying to be overly critical)

Dejan Kovacevic: You mean against Central Florida?

What happened was that Penn State's defense couldn't tackle a baby turtle that day, that's all. That's not on the QB. And it's certainly not on the freshman QB that goes 21 of 28 for 262 yards with a TD and no picks.


If there's blame to be dispensed, it isn't for Christian Hackenberg and the offense putting up 31 points. It's for a defense that looked as sloppy as you'll ever see the home side at Beaver Stadium, one that Bill O'Brien and staff need to either address or upgrade through personnel in a hurry. Michigan isn't far off.

Comment From Henry: Maz has probably done more for the Pirates than any other living player. BUT, it seems odd that he is auctioning his stuff instead of just donating it to the Pirates, or at least offering it at a discount. I'm sure he will give the money to his family, which is probably the point. Just seems like someone local should step up.

Dejan Kovacevic: I've asked questions about this over the past week, all in the background. I very much respect Maz's right to do as he wishes with the memorabilia. It's 100 percent his choice. Who buys it doesn't matter anywhere near as much to me as whether or not Maz and his family are happy with the outcome.

Two days ago, none of us knew the first thing about the whereabouts of any of that stuff. Let's not pretend it affects us now.

Comment From Keith: The sad part about this year for the Steelers is that the division is so winnable if they just go 10-6 that would probably be good enough.

Dejan Kovacevic: Exactly. But I've been saying that from the beginning, including when I picked the Steelers to have that same record. And that was before the Browns went all Browns on the world again.

Comment From Dom: When Heath Miller returns, could Kelvin Beachum replace Marcus Gilbert at tackle?

Dejan Kovacevic: It won't be as soon as Sunday night, no. But Beachum is absolutely a candidate to replace either tackle if they keep stinking it up. Don't let Mike Adams off the hook.

Comment From Damon: Do you feel Beau Bennett fits on the line with Geno and Neal - does his style work with the other two?

Dejan Kovacevic: No one fits with Geno. You don't fit with Geno. Not even Neal does that. You feed Geno. You do it repeatedly even as you're doing your own thing. Or you don't feed Geno when he's not open, as Chris Kunitz mastered.

If that sounds nonsensical, so be it. But the fact is that Malkin has never had any great tic-tac-toe type chemistry with anyone. He's an individual force who also happens to be capable of making the great pass. Sometimes you get him the puck, and sometimes you don't.

Beau Bennett, in that sense, should work just fine. He oozes that Kunitz-level of confidence you'd want in a linemate.

Comment From Burgh Steel: Who do you feel is the best matchup for the Bucs in the postseason and the worst.I love the way they have battled the Cards this year.

Trib Total Media: Pirates vs. Cardinals is a W for Pittsburgh. We've seen a lot of evidence of that already, and St. Louis' inability to hit lefties would bode well with Liriano pitching twice.

All matchups vs. the Dodgers are bad for all teams.

Dejan Kovacevic: Abbreviated Tampa Bay Lightning time?

Forgot all about it.

Comment From CoolGuy: If the Steelers offensive continues to struggle, how long do they stick with Haley?

Dejan Kovacevic: Forever and ever.

Comment From Guest: Who in the Steelers organization should bear most of the blame for several years of poor drafting/development. Is it the head coach's responsiblity or the GM?

Dejan Kovacevic: Yes.

Comment From tom: How do you think the Pens will get under the cap? Why haven't they moved Niskanen yet? Not enough interest in him to get a decent return? Or do you think Shero wants to find a way to hang on to him?

Dejan Kovacevic: Despres' demotion will get them under.

Comment From Shawn M: A few weeks ago, I asked you if Marcus Gilbert was a second round bust? Has your opinion changed since the beginning of the season?

Dejan Kovacevic: I'm not quick to label people busts. That's Huey Richardson. He's performing badly.

Comment From Jeff: I haven't seen any criticism from the media of how Tomlin went into the season without an experienced (pro or collegiate) center. Any idea why?

Dejan Kovacevic: I hate questions like this. I don't speak for the media. If you have a question about my work or my coverage, I'm happy to address it and always accountable.

Comment From PirateApologist: Am I the only one who lives in Pittsburgh who just doesn't get the “Pittsburgh Dad” thing? If this is blasphemy let me know, but I find it very unfunny.

Dejan Kovacevic: Haven't laughed once.

Comment From The Plan Worked: You asked us this morning about the playoff rotation. What order are your top 4?

Dejan Kovacevic: It's on the very blog entry you're citing. Not sure what you're asking.

Comment From Napper :According to his numbers, Shero stated the Pens may not be as far over the salary cap as it was being reported. Do you still have a vibe that Niskanen is the odd man out?

Dejan Kovacevic: No, not anymore.

Comment From Java Sam: Question and Comment on your Starbucks habit. Your go-to drink - plain coffee or somehting more exotic. Also, I had you pegged as more of local roaster/brewer patron than the mulit-national conglomerate, although there is something to be said for consistency.

Dejan Kovacevic: Large iced chai with three extra pumps. Keeps you up for days.

Comment From Count Blah: Lightning round multiple choice question: Who will be with the Pirates in 2014? A) Garrett Jones B) Justin Morneau C) both A and B D) none of the above

Dejan Kovacevic: E. I think they could at least entertain bringing back Morneau if he were to catch fire. No internal solutions at first base.

Comment From Thundercrack: Is AJ really a leader or is he just a veteran player?

Dejan Kovacevic: You don't play a prominent role in changing the attitude of a 20-year loser without being a leader. A.J. is actually more of that than most people will ever know, not least of which in terms of how he's handled the Pirates' folks over his head.

Comment From CoolGuy: Wow is the best reponse for that question on PSU

Dejan Kovacevic: Hackenberg has been wonderful. And it isn't just Allen Robinson carrying him. He's really spread things out.

Comment From Shrivz: That Staal trade is looking better and better. Sutter is very capable as third line C, and Pouliot and Dumoulin are the real deal.

Dejan Kovacevic: Sorry, but I'm putting Brandon Sutter on my Fleury list after his disappearance in the last playoffs.

Comment From No DVR: Should I watch the Steelers or Breaking Bad Sunday night?

Dejan Kovacevic: The same benevolent deity who gave us Tyler Boyd also gave us the DVR.

Comment From Groat2Maz2Strangeglove: Dejan, Hope the “rough day” yesterday only had to do with work, and not someone dear's health!

Dejan Kovacevic: Just hit a wall, man. Couldn't write a syllable. First time in three years, I think. All better.

Comment From Guest: It seems like you don't want to answer my question. Afraid to criticize Tomlin?

Dejan Kovacevic: I am terrified of criticizing Tomlin, yes. Have never done it before.

Honestly, I don't even know what questions you're referring to. We get hundreds in here, I'm happy to say. Sorry.

Comment From Adam M: Any chance that Morrow returns to the Burgh?

Dejan Kovacevic: I'd take Brenden Morrow on my fourth line.

Comment From hankpsu: How much was Art Rooney involved in Haley being here in the first place? I know Mike T said the right things when Arians was sent packing and Haley brought in...perhaps the owner doesn't look that good any more

Dejan Kovacevic: I've always believed — and written — that I've felt it was Art II behind the Haley hire and that Tomlin eventually went along with it.

Comment From sluggo13: Didn't Sutter score 50% of our goals versus Boston?

Dejan Kovacevic: Ha! He did, indeed, the 50-foot wrister that made it look like it was going to be easy.

Comment From Guest: Is Morris in or out of a postseason roster spot?

Dejan Kovacevic: He's in for me. He's healthy and he's been here.

Comment From Paul fron Nashville, TN by way of Altoona, PA: Will Jeff Locke the scheduled pitcher of record for Sunday's game against the Red's have a quick hook by Hurdle if he does not deal early in the game?

Dejan Kovacevic: That would be a wise plan. And I'm betting Hurdle thought of that before either of us!

Dejan Kovacevic: That's all the time for this week. Thanks to all for participating.

I've got a Steelers-Bears column running Sunday, then the game column for the following day. Then it's off to London in the middle of next week!

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