LATROBE, Pa. – Let’s get to it:
JEFF HOGAN FROM LAKELAND, FL: Do the Steelers have a roster spot open for a return specialist or would Diontae Spencer have to make the team as a wide receiver?
ANSWER: Diontae Spencer’s most direct path to a roster spot would be by showing he has above-the-line capability both as a receiver and as a returner. In the preseason opener, Spencer caught two passes for 17 yards, returned four punts for 52 yards and one kickoff for 35 yards. And the new reality in the NFL is that since kickoff returns have been all but eliminated by the plethora of touchbacks, there is limited need for a pure return specialist. Finally, there is the presence on the roster of Ryan Switzer, a reliable returner but a big part of the receiving corps and a favorite of Ben Roethlisberger, which is not an insignificant factor. That said, it wouldn’t be impossible for Spencer to make the 53-man roster strictly as a return specialist, but for that to happen he better bring back a couple of kicks for touchdowns during this preseason.
WADE AGES FROM THE WOODLANDS, TX: How are the practice squad players chosen? Do they use the same strategy as they say they use in the draft – best player available as opposed to picking players based on need?
ANSWER: I don’t really understand the “best player available” vs. need reference, but I’m still going to try to answer the question. Or to be more accurate, I’m going to allow Coach Mike Tomlin to answer the question: “(The practice squad) serves multiple purposes. Sometimes it’s a developmental squad. Sometimes there’s a guy with upside but he’s not even close to being ready to play, and so he’s camped (on the practice squad) for a season. Some guys are just on the outside looking in for whatever reason. They didn’t pan out within their group, and that’s a means of continuing to do business with them. And if something happens positionally or within the team that would give them an opportunity to be elevated and play, then they’re viewed in that way. Different people have different statuses. People are on that list for a variety of reasons. The big thing is you’ve done enough things and you’ve got enough traits that we want to continue with you. That’s what’s important.”
JEFF NICHOLS FROM SAULT STE MARIE, CANADA: I have always been curious about how NFL teams travel. If a team is flying, does it require multiple planes because of the weight of the equipment? Also, planes aren’t exactly comfortable for an average-sized person, so who would get the seats with more leg room?
ANSWER: There are airplanes big enough to carry an entire NFL team, including equipment, across the country and do it non-stop. When the Steelers traveled to Oakland last season, for example, it was on one plane and it was a non-stop flight. And the airplanes NFL teams charter are big enough and have enough seats where players are not required to sit three across in a row. Standard procedure is for two plays to sit in a three-seat row, and so that provides a bit of extra room. But for men such as Alejandro Villanueva (6-foot-9, 320 pounds) or Zach Banner (6-8, 360 pounds), it’s cramped. No question about it.
JORDAN FALCO FROM CEDAR RAPIDS, IA: How do you feel about our cornerbacks moving forward as the regular season approaches? What are you exited about, and hoping to see?
ANSWER: Over the last few years, the Steelers have gone about trying to upgrade their talent at cornerback, and as we get closer to the start of the 2019 regular season, I see the cornerbacks as a representative group that has an interesting combination of talent and experience. On paper. There isn’t a lot of depth at the top of the depth chart, and by that I mean I don’t believe the group could withstand a long-term injury to a front-line player, and there are also several examples of guys who must turn their potential into production for the unit to be a part of a defense that can help the team contend for a championship. Artie Burns has been doing some nice things at practices daily, as has Cam Sutton. But those two guys have to translate that into games and translate that into games on a consistent basis. There’s still a lot of preseason left, which means a player such as Brian Allen has time either to ascend and grab a roster spot by the throat or disappear. Rookie Justin Layne has an intriguing skill-set, but right now he doesn’t look to be ready to play in an NFL regular season game, but there’s a lot of preseason left. And that unit, along with the linebackers and the safeties, have to figure out a way to create more takeaways.
ELIJAAH BARNETT FROM DARBY, PA: Is it possible for Ulysees Gilbert and Devin Bush both to start at inside linebacker? What could be some pros and cons of the scenario?
ANSWER: It wouldn’t be against any NFL rules for Devin Bush and Ulysees Gilbert to start at inside linebacker, nor would it be illegal. But it has no chance of happening in 2019, because there are absolutely no pros to having two rookies start at inside linebacker, and the No. 1 con would be that the Steelers would have two rookies starting at inside linebacker. And while I understand your excitement over Gilbert’s performance in the second half of the preseason opener, that was the second half of the preseason opener. Gilbert still has to make the 53-man roster because at this very minute, that is not a sure thing.
DONNIE BROWN FROM VAN BUREN, ME: With teams typically dressing two quarterbacks on game day, does Zach Gentry make sense as an emergency quarterback?
ANSWER: As Elijaah Barnett did in the previous submission, you are assuming that one week into the preseason a day three draft pick is a lock to make the 53-man roster. That is a mistake. Zach Gentry made a nice catch in the end zone against the Buccaneers, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. And another thing: the last time Gentry played quarterback in a real game was in high school.
VINCE LAMARCA FROM OVIEDO, FL: Why in the world is there overtime in the exhibition season?
ANSWER: I have no idea. A preseason game going into overtime should be against the terms of the Geneva Convention.