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Steelers Q & A: Scott Brown answers your questions

| Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tribune-Review Steelers writer Scott Brown answers your questions about the Pittsburgh Steelers. Read older questions in the archives .

Q: What do you think the Steelers' chances are of unseating New England for the AFC crown this year?

-- Kevin Wade of Hammond, La.

A: You may be getting a little bit ahead of yourself since the Steelers first have to make the playoffs before they can win the AFC. That is anything but a sure thing given the strength of their schedule and the fact that the Steelers will enter training camp with their share of question marks, most notably along each line.

The season-ending arm injury suffered by Aaron Smith last December exposed the lack of depth the Steelers have at defensive end. Yet Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason will again back up Smith and Brett Keisel -- or at least they'll enter training camp as the top candidates to back up the starting defensive ends.

As for the offensive line, a group that had mixed results last year -- Willie Parker was leading the NFL in rushing before he broke his leg late in the season but Ben Roethlisberger got sacked 47 times in 15 regular-season games -- lost its best player, left guard Alan Faneca, to free agency. Still, the line should be better in 2008 even without Faneca. Justin Hartwig, assuming he wins the starting job at center, should be an upgrade over Sean Mahan and left tackle Marvel Smith looks great and he said he feels great because of the back surgery that alleviated a nerve problem.

Whether the offensive line is improved enough for the Steelers to challenge for AFC supremacy is a question that will be answered as the season plays out. But it has to be markedly better in 2008 than it was in 2007, and the Steelers have to stay healthy along the defensive line for them to contend with the likes of the Patriots and Colts in the AFC and even the Chargers and Jaguars.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, depending on your vantage point), the Steelers will get to measure themselves against the teams that should be among the best in 2008 on a regular basis. The Patriots, Colts, Chargers and Jaguars are all on the Steelers' schedule for the upcoming season. Their presence is a major reason why the schedule may be the toughest one in the NFL, at least on paper -- and why it may be tough for the Steelers to win nine or 10 games and make the playoffs.

I do think they have to be considered the team to beat in the AFC North going into the season. The Bengals are a mess, the Ravens are rebuilding and as good as the Browns look on paper they are still the Browns until they prove otherwise.

Q: Why is it that the Steelers are always "just barely under" the salary cap given the fact they have not drafted higher than No. 11 in recent memory, and usually draft in the high 20s. It would seem that perennial losing teams that draft in the top-10 every year and pay out huge contracts to high draft picks would be in bad cap shape instead of the Steelers.

-- Craig Eversole of Assumption, Ill.

A: I think the answer lies more in what the Steelers' philosophy is in regard to the salary cap more than it does in where they have drafted in recent years. The organization simply refuses to backload contracts or resort to other creative measures in regard to the salary cap no matter what short-term benefits they might yield.

Where a team drafts from year-to-year, I don't think, has as much of an effect on its salary cap as people might think since that assumes the same teams are picking near the top of the draft every year. Remember, the NFL does as much to promote parity as much, if not more, than any major sports league.

Also, there are plenty of ways for teams to get themselves into salary-cap trouble, be it spending lavishly (or foolishly) on free agents or doling out huge contracts to their own veterans that may be on the downside of their career.

The Steelers have had an uncanny knack of letting proven veterans go before they overpay them, which is why it can make it all the more maddening for fans that an organization that, by and large, spends wisely (the tender offer the Steelers made to Max Starks notwithstanding), always seems to be just under the salary cap.

But given the success the Steelers have had in the salary cap era, it's hard to argue with the way they do business.

Check out Scott's View from the Press Box blog entry for his latest take on the Pittsburgh Steelers.


Q: I have two questions here for you. I live in Sharon and right across the border from us is Hubbard, Ohio, Anthony Smith's hometown. We are all rooting for Anthony to make a big impact with the Steelers and he seemed to be on the right track until that Patriots game where he popped off to the media. His season went downhill from there. He seems to have the talent to be an impact player to me. Do you think it's a confidence issue right now with him, or do you feel he does not have the kind of talent to start for the Steelers• It's his third year and I believe he will be able to turn his career around this year if he can stay quiet and do his job. My second question is: what type of offense do you think this year's Steelers team is going to evolve into• We drafted a stud RB and WR, so I'm not sure if we will pound the ball with the quality RBs we have, or are we (and yes, I use the word "we" because I buy tickets and authentic jerseys to support the Steelers) going to be an explosive offense and let Ben throw the ball all over the "yard" to all of the weapons that are on this team• We have all the ingredients for an explosive offense like New England and Indy. I just cannot see any reason why this offense could not be one of the top 5 offenses in the NFL, if not the best.

-- John Carrier of Sharon

A: Well, you summed up Anthony Smith's 2007 season rather nicely. He appeared to be having a good season, and the wheels just seemed to come off after the New England game. I'm not sure we'll ever know how much the fallout from that game and his well-publicized guarantee that the Steelers would beat the undefeated Patriots affected him. He never backed down from saying what he did, even as recently as May, when I had a chance to ask him about it during mini camp. I'd say that confidence isn't the issue with him as much as the aggressiveness with which he plays is. Smith always seems like he is looking to deliver a big hit, and that's great, but I think opposing teams exploited that last season, most notably New England.

The second touchdown on which he got beat I give him a pass on (no pun intended) because it was a trick play, and hey those things happen. However, earlier in the game he bit on a play-action fake and that was unforgivable for two reasons: One, New England hardly ever ran the ball last season, and they had the NFL's top deep threat in Randy Moss. There is no reason why Smith shouldn't have stayed at home on the play, which resulted in a long Moss touchdown reception. Mike Tomlin has said Smith is at a "crossroads" in his career, and I think he will be OK if he can learn to play a little more under control.

I agree that the offense has a chance to be very good and, as you said, even "explosive." Keep in mind, however, that we have no idea what roles running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed will play in the offense this season -- or, perhaps more accurately, what roles they will be able to handle since both of them are rookies. I liked the selections of Mendenhall and Sweed by the Steelers in the first and second rounds, respectively, of the recent NFL draft on paper. But neither has played a down so it's not a given that either will make a significant impact this season. If they are, however, as good as the Steelers think they can be, well that provides even more firepower to an offense that is hardly lacking it. And with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback I'm not sure I'd ever count the Steelers out of any game given his ability to make plays with his legs as well as his arm.

Q: I was wondering when you think the Steelers will start signing their draft picks• What sort of contracts are we looking at for Mendenhall and Sweed• Do you think we will have a difficult time signing either of them, or any of our other picks for that matter?

-- Frank Mineo of Washington, D.C.

A: The Steelers have their final offseason practice tomorrow, and after the OTAs are finished the focus turns to signing the players that they drafted and other business such as possibly negotiating with the agents of Marvel Smith and James Farrior on contract extensions (each player is entering the final year of his contract) and maybe even signing a veteran free agent or two.

I would be surprised if the Steelers sign Mendenhall any time soon. Most of the first-round picks are still unsigned at this point and the Steelers, not to mention Mendenhall's agent, have to wait to see what kind of deals the players drafted just ahead of him sign before they start seriously negotiating on a contract. I doubt they could even discuss a basic framework on a deal at this point and have to wait until some dominoes fall so to speak.

I wouldn't worry too much about it. The Steelers didn't get deals done with their previous two first-round picks until the start of training camp but neither Santonio Holmes (2006) nor Lawrence Timmons (2007) missed any practice time because they were holdouts. I have to think the Steelers will get Mendenhall signed in time for the start of camp just as they did with Holmes and Timmons. He will almost certainly be the last draft pick to come to terms with the team.

I don't anticipate any other problems as far as the other draft picks signing. The only difficulty I could see with Sweed is his agent trying to get him more money than the Steelers are willing to pay a second-round pick based on the Steelers having publicly said that they had him rated as a first-round talent. But I think the chances of that happening are remote, and the fact is Sweed did get drafted in the second round rather than the first round, no matter where the Steelers had him on their draft board. From what I'm told, is so happy to be with the Steelers, that I can't imagine him not signing a contract before the start of training camp.

Q: How about Jason Taylor in black and gold• Does this idea seem out of bounds• Would he fit with the team• Would he cost too much to "rent" for a year or two?

-- Tony Sayegh of Sacramento

A: Tony,

I think Jason Taylor would be a great addition to the Steelers (or any team for that matter). He is a local product, is great in the community and is still a heck of a player. Does a homecoming for the Pittsburgh native have any chance of happening• In a word, no. I can't see the Steelers giving up a high-round draft pick that the Dolphins would almost certainly demand in a trade for Taylor.

Their philosophy has long been to build through the draft and, as you pointed out, Taylor probably is a "rent a player" at this point in his career. As the extracurricular activities that have so angered Bill Parcells suggest, he is already eyeing life after football, and it is hard to imagine the six-time Pro Bowler putting off whatever Hollywood ambitions he has for more than a couple of more years, if that.

Plus, the addition of Taylor could stunt the growth of second-year man LaMarr Woodley. Taylor would have to play outside linebacker in the Steelers' defense, and his addition would undoubtedly mean more waiting for the promising Woodley since the Steelers have a Pro Bowler in James Harrison at right outside linebacker.

Again, it would be great for Taylor to finish his NFL career in Pittsburgh, but I just can't see the Steelers' meeting the Dolphins' asking price for him, especially since they have Harrison and since Woodley appears poised to become the latest in a line of former college defensive ends that starred after making the transition to outside linebacker with the Steelers.

Q: I know the draft was only a little more than a month ago but I can't help but speculate as to who the Steelers will target in the '09 draft. All of the '09 mock drafts I have seen project the Steelers taking a defensive lineman like Tyson Jackson from LSU. Wouldn't it be better for the team to draft a center that can anchor the offensive line for the next 15 years like Webster, Dawson, and Hartings• There will be two very good ones in next years draft in Jonathan Luigs from Arkansas and Alex Mack from Cal.

-- Jason Moore of Atlanta

A: Jason,

Where in the name of Mel Kiper are you finding mock drafts for 2009• I appreciate your passion but I think it is a little too early to start thinking ahead to next year's draft. Let's see how this year's class pans out (not to mention 2007 first-rounder Lawrence Timmons, among others) and how the season plays out before we start identifying needs for 2009.

I agree that if the Steelers can find a center that can continue the string of excellence they have had at the position that they should draft him. Remember, though, that enough teams passed on Webster in 1974 that the Steelers were able to snag him in the fifth round. And that Jeff Hartings played guard for the Lions from 1996-2000 before moving to center after he signed with the Steelers.

Point is, the Steelers don't necessarily have to take a center with their first-round pick to find one that can become a fixture in the middle of the offensive line. I would hope, for their sake, that the Steelers draft the best players available -- something they did this year when they took running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed with their first two picks even though they had more pressing needs elsewhere.

The Steelers surprised a lot of folks by not drafting a defensive lineman this year. That, and the fact that Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel will all be in their 30s by the start of the 2009 season is probably why the mock drafts you have seen have the Steelers taking a defensive lineman.

I will say this: if there is a defensive lineman worth taking in the first round when it is their turn to pick they will have to seriously consider it because the line is going to have to be addressed sooner rather than later. Q: An earlier question about Dick LeBeau got me thinking about the relative quality of the great Steelers Ds. Obviously, the Steel Curtain of the '70s was great, some of the best defensive teams ever. But a lot of us these days remember them from watching NFL Films, so we're seeing not merely their best moments, but their legendary ones, condensed into half-hour specials.

On the other hand, we're watching the modern team week in and week out -- most fans I know will tell you that they've watched every snap from center in a given season. That means we're seeing the current D warts and all -- we're seeing the burns and blown assignments and missed tackles, etc. The NFL Films' "Steel Curtain" never does any of that stuff, but surely the non-highlight version of those teams did.

So my question: was the perception of the Steelers D in the 1970s that they could stop anybody, anytime, period• Or was it similar to the way we've looked at some of LeBeau's teams -- that they are a very good defense with some exploitable holes• Obviously, rule changes and personnel continuity play a part in all of this, but I'm asking in general: just how perfect was the Steel Curtain?

-- Sean Blythe from Washington, D.C.

A: One of the more interesting questions I've gotten in awhile. And, like you, I can't claim to have more than fuzzy remembrances of the "Steel Curtain" defenses since I was born in 1971. On the surface, there is no comparison between those defenses and the LeBeau-led ones that we have been watching, and that is no disrespect whatsoever toward LeBeau, whom I admire greatly as a coach and as a person.

I say that based largely on the number of Hall of Famers the "Steel Curtain" defenses produced. Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount are all enshrined in Canton and you could make an argument that several other players from the "Steel Curtain" defenses, notably L.C. Greenwood and Donnie Shell, also are worthy of busts in the Hall of Fame.

Compare that to the defense from the 2005 Super Bowl-winning team. Only one player from that defense, Troy Polamalu, figures to have a chance at the Hall of Fame and he still has a lot of work to do.

That said, the 2005 defense measures up, at least statistically, to the ones in 1978 and 1979. The Steelers gave up 25 offensive touchdowns in 2005 compared to 28 in 1979 and 21 in 1978. As for another measuring stick applied to defenses, the 2005 Steelers gave up 284 yards per game compared to 266.9 by the 1979 Steelers and 260.5 by the 1978 Steelers.

Looks like the answer to your final question is this: Yes, the "Steel Curtain" was dominant but certainly not perfect. No defense ever has been or ever will be -- no matter what our memories or highlights from NFL Films suggest -- and opposing offenses will always find something to exploit.

Thanks again for the great observations and questions.

Q: Dick LeBeau is probably the greatest defensive coordinator ever. The man is a genius when it comes to schemes and plays, and can make adjustments with the best of them. What really bothers me is, why does he allow opponents to constantly kill us with their short slants/slots over the middle• If the Steelers could shut down the short passing game of the opponents, our defense would be so much better than it is now. Why doesn't he do something about that?

-- Clay Stapleton of Ashland, Ohio (formerly from Monessen)

A: The short answer is probably that defenses, even the best of them, can't take everything away from offenses. The Steelers rely so much on their outside linebackers to generate pressure on quarterbacks that when they do blitz it is only natural for opposing teams to try and counter that with quick-hitting passes in the form of slants.

Sure, the Steelers could try "jumping routes" so to speak but they would also leave themselves vulnerable to big plays. It is hard to argue with the success LeBeau's defenses have had through the years and remember, as NFL coaches and players are fond of saying, the other guys get paid too. All I know is in the chess match that serves as a game within a game among coaches, and particularly coordinators, I'll take Dick LeBeau any day.

Q: Apparently Ryan Clark has regained all his weight and is practicing with the first team. I'm a big fan of his and I think he's the best FA acquisition the Steelers made since James Farrior but I have to wonder, is he the same player• You must have seen the OTAs, how does he look out there• Any chance he'll be as good as before?

-- L.J. Marsot of Montreal

A: It's probably too early to tell whether Ryan Clark will be the same player that he was before the horrific ordeal he went through last season. I wrote a story on March 30 for Steelers fans that were not aware of all he had to endure just to get back on the football field.

Clark has looked good during OTAs but I think what will be more telling is how he handles the rigors of training camp. That is the ultimate test of conditioning and endurance, and camp will almost surely reveal where Clark is physically and how much he can help the Steelers this season.

He is an easy guy to root for given that he is an upbeat, affable guy not to mention the route he took to the NFL. Clark went undrafted coming out of LSU but that didn't stop him from becoming a starting safety in the NFL and a pretty good one. The adversity he has overcome leads me to believe that he will return to football better than ever. Not saying it is going to happen but I Ryan Clark has proven throughout his career that it is not wise to bet against him.

It wouldn't be just a nice feel-good story if he is able to reclaim his spot in the starting lineup. Free safety is the one area on defense where the Steelers have uncertainty and not just because of Clark. For as much promise as Anthony Smith showed at times he regressed badly at the end of last season, and Mike Tomlin has said himself that the third-year professional is at a crossroads at this stage of his career.

Nothing would be better for the Steelers than for both Clark and Smith to rebound and give the team two quality players at free safety no matter who wins the starting job in training camp.

Q: First, do you believe that a prevent defense works• Every time I hear an announcer say that the Steelers are in a "dime" or "nickel" (another name for a prevent) I shudder. You hold another teams offense for 58 minutes then throw away what worked and the other team, more often than not, gains enough yardage to kick a field goal. Just want your opinion. Also, why aren't kickers taught to kick to the "coffin corner?" Every team has kick returners that are capable of taking the ball to the house so why kick to them• I know sometimes kicking it high and letting the special teams players down the ball but it seems most of the time it doesn't work. I wonder if there is a stat on how many times that type of kick works.

-- Tom Rizzutto of Mechanicsburg

A: Tom,

Can't say how much I dislike prevent defenses. I've seen too many instances where the only thing they have prevented is winning. I am particularly puzzled when teams go into the prevent after they have played good defense for almost an entire game. If you have stopped an offense for 57 or 58 minutes why, well stop what you are doing• I understand not wanting to give up a big play but geez have a little trust in your players.

That said, I think there is a distinction between a prevent defense and nickel and dime defenses. Nickel and dime defenses are more situational (not to mention used throughout a game and not just at the end of one) and they are often dictated by the offense. If a team puts four or five wide receivers on the field, defenses have to respond by getting more defensive backs in the game.

I do see the point I think you are making in that teams should stick with what they are doing defensively instead of reacting to what the offense is doing. A good quarterback, however, will exploit defenses that don't adjust to four- or five-wide receiver sets. Of course, it can also be argued that a good quarterback will take advantage of favorable matchups even if a team uses a nickel or dime defense. I guess that is why quarterback is the most important position in football -- and why good pass rushers are an almost equally valued commodity in the NFL.

I would guess that the "coffin kick" has pretty much become a thing of the past because punters can get the kind of hang time that allows the coverage team to surround the returner and make any sort of gain on the play minimal. Not kicking to the corner also forces the return man to make a split-second decision. Either way mistakes can be made -- the return man may fair-catch the ball inside the 10-yard line or let it drop and watch the other team down the ball even closer to his team's end zone. Sure, there is a chance of a punt returner breaking a long return but I'd guess that there is an even a greater chance he will fumble, giving the other team excellent field position. One thing that has to factor into where to punt the ball in such situations: who is returning for the other team. If I coach in the NFC North and I play the Bears twice a year I make sure my punter has worked on the "coffin kick." Bears returner Devin Hester is that good. Not sure, though, how many other returners are that dangerous to warrant punting away from them no matter what.

Q: Scott,

So what point was Tomlin trying to make last season by cutting Okobi and starting Mahan (Chukky must have really made him mad). You can't tell me Mahan actually outplayed anyone and how did Starks "lose out" to Colon at RT when he played LT the vast majority of preseason?

To me, if money plays no part, the best OL combo would be (from left to right) Starks, (played LT in college and the best of the group last year), Kemoeatu, Hartwig, Colon (Simmons just hasn't been the same since diabetes and torn ACL) and Smith -- tackles could be flipped.

Also, what are the chances the Steelers sign a veteran "blocking" TE to help our perceived weak OTs• A guy like Bruener can make any average OT seem good especially since the current TEs are more of the pass receiver types.

-- Jason Rector of Bradenton, Fla.

A: I'd guess that Tomlin wanted to give Mahan every opportunity to win the starting job since he knew Mahan from their time together in Tampa. It's interesting to wonder how the battle at center would have played out had Okobi been the one with whom Tomlin was familiar (not to mention the guy who turned out to be the first significant free-agent signing of the Tomlin Era) while Mahan had been the holdover from a previous coaching regime.

The guess here is that the two were close enough in ability that Tomlin decided he wanted his guy so to speak, and once he made the decision to go with Mahan the Steelers had to cut Okobi because he made too much money to be a backup. As for Starks "losing out" to Colon, it's hard to argue with your point. I'm guessing Starks would agree as he has said he was never told by the coaches why he lost his starting job.

I disagree that Starks is a better option at left tackle than Marvel Smith, at least for the 2008 season. I don't think anyone realized what Smith had to play through last season with the nerve problem in his back. His foot went numb at times making it difficult for him to get a good push but he said during mini camp at the beginning of the month that surgery corrected the problem and that he feels as good as he has in years. What the Steelers have to decide is whether they want to give another big contract to Smith, who turns 30 in August and is in the final year of his deal, or reach an agreement with Starks, 26, on a long-term extension with the idea that Starks will be the team's left tackle after this season.

As for signing a blocking tight end, the Steelers had veteran Kyle Brady in for a visit last month and blocking has long been long been his forte. I'd have to think he will be a consideration for the Steelers -- assuming he doesn't sign with another team -- after they make some roster moves such as releasing rookies or young players they don't think can compete for a roster spot or veterans for salary cap reasons.


I believe the Steelers started Colon over Starks to give him a year of experience before making him the starting left guard and Starks the starting right tackle. Smith, Colon, Hartwig, Simmons, Starks will give us a solid o-line for the next four to five years becoming one of the best within the next three. What do you think?

-- Rashied Norris of Dallas

A: Rashied,

That's an interesting point you raise about why the Steelers started Willie Colon over Max Starks at right tackle last season. I do, however, feel fairly confident after being around Mike Tomlin for more than year in saying that he started Colon over Starks because he thought that gave the Steelers the best chance of winning last season. He is so competitive and so focused on the moment that I just can't see him making a decision over who starts at a position based on what it will yield in future years. You can argue whether Tomlin made the right decision in starting Colon over Starks but I don't think it was part of any master plan to get Colon starting experience before moving him to guard.

That's not to say Colon won't end up at left guard. I do think the Steelers will give Chris Kemoeatu every opportunity to win the starting job but he is still unproven at this point and if he falters, I think the Steelers have to consider giving Colon a long look at left guard.

I'm not so sure the Steelers will have one of the best offensive lines in football even if they keep Marvel Smith and Max Starks beyond the 2008 season, but they may not need to be dominant in that area in the coming years. The Steelers are so stocked at the skill positions, especially if first- and second-round picks Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed pan out, that they merely need the line to be solid for them to thrive offensively.

Check out Scott's View from the Press Box blog entry for his latest take on the Pittsburgh Steelers.


Q: Scott,

Assuming Chris K. steps in for Faneca and Hartwig is in the middle instead of Mahan, and the rest of the line remains as is, what do you think the chances are that Max Starks has his offer rescinded• He makes a big chunk of change for a back-up tackle....especially if there is a player (such as Booger McFarland, etc) that can help the team in a more prominent role. Is this only an option if somebody like Tony Hills and or Trai Essex looks good in the offseason?

-- Mike McCorkle of York

A: Mike,

The Steelers don't have the option of rescinding the one-year, $6.9 million tender offer they made to Starks. Once he signed it, it became guaranteed. The only way they can get out of paying that kind of money, at least this season, is if they sign Starks to a long-term contract extension, which would replace the tender.

The two sides are apparently working toward such an agreement but the Steelers may really have to blow Starks away with an offer for him to sign a long-term extension. After all, he can pocket almost $7 million this season and then shop himself as an unrestricted free agent. Of course, if he doesn't beat out Willie Colon for the starting job at right tackle and serves as a swing guy at tackle, then it's logical to question just what kind of money he will command if he hits the open market.

It makes sense for Starks and the Steelers to get a long-term deal done that is favorable to both sides. What those terms would be at this point is hard to say since it is not clear what his role will be this season and since it is not known whether the Steelers will have a need at left tackle after this season.

Starter Marvel Smith is in the final year of his contract and the Steelers have a history of not giving long-term extensions to veteran players whose best football may be behind them. They could, however, make an exception with Smith, who has played eight seasons in the NFL, given how critical the position of left tackle is and how rejuvenated he seems following back surgery.

If the Steelers don't re-sign Smith that makes having a guy like Starks for the long term much more important. It would be pretty risky for them to go into next season without at least one player that has some sort of a track record at left tackle.

Q: Is Tommie Harris on the Steelers' radar in the 2009 free agent market or is he too "pricey?" Could Simmons and Mahan and up on the bench and Starks RT and Colon RG be starters• And if so, do the Steelers extend Starks to a long term deal?


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