Asked and Answered

Asked and Answered: Aug. 13

Let's get to it:

LEE COOMBS FROM MUNHALL, PA: In a recent Asked and Answered, you made reference to a former Steelers quarterback nicknamed "Slash." Could you please refresh my memory of Steelers history about this player and his roster position(s)?
ANSWER: It was Coach Bill Cowher who dropped the moniker "Slash" onto Kordell Stewart during his rookie season of 1995. This was the situation: Because starting quarterback Neil O'Donnell and backup Mike Tomczak both were eligible to be unrestricted free agents following the 1995 season, the Steelers kept four quarterbacks on their roster in a way of protecting themselves should both O'Donnell and Tomczak seek greener financial pastures. As the rookie, Stewart was No. 4 on the quarterback depth chart through the preseason and the early part of the regular season, and so when injuries struck the Steelers wide receivers early in the 1995 regular season (and because there were no practice reps available for a fourth quarterback during the weekly grind of the season), the coaches asked Stewart if he would help out at receiver during practices. A few weeks into this, the coaches started seeing that no one could cover Stewart, and that he also was athletic enough to run the correct routes and catch the ball when thrown to him. Eventually, a package was developed for Stewart, and he was inserted into games as a short-yardage quarterback, and he would take the snap and either run or throw short passes. That package continued to evolve, and Stewart's role expanded even more to being a receiver in games as he was doing in practice. The Steelers ultimately came to list Stewart on the roster as QB/WR. Cowher picked up on that and started referring to him as "Slash." During the 1995 season, Stewart finished with 15 carries for 86 yards, good for a 5.7 average and one touchdown; he also completed 5-of-7 for 60 yards, with one touchdown, no interceptions, and a rating of 136.9; and he caught 14 passes for 235 yards, good for a 16.8 average and another touchdown. Stewart was a QB/RB/WR over the course of the season, through the playoffs and then Super Bowl XXX, hence the nickname "Slash."

EMIL LOMBARDI FROM OCALA, FL: What are your thoughts on inside linebacker Ulysses Gilbert III? I know he was injured a lot during his first two seasons, but he fared well on special teams. Do you think he makes the team?
ANSWER: During the early portion of training camp, I thought Ulysees Gilbert III was poised to make a jump up the depth chart at inside linebacker and put himself into the thick of the competition for playing time. He was flashing often in drills and seemed to be especially effective in coverage, where at one point he had an interception and a few passes defensed. Then he got hurt again, didn't practice for a while, and on Aug. 10, the Steelers claimed linebacker Hamilcar Rashed off waivers from the New York Jets and waived/injured Gilbert. In 28 games (no starts) over his three years with the Steelers, Gilbert registered four tackles on defense and 25 tackles on special teams. Gilbert recovered a blocked punt in the 2021 opener in Buffalo and returned it for his first career touchdown. Gilbert had a lot of things going for him in terms of speed and athletic ability, but he couldn't stay healthy.

DAVID MARCOU FROM DANVERS, MA: Obviously, the preseason games will be a better indicator, but so far during training camp is there a particular individual or group that appears to be deeper or better than what your expectation was coming in, and conversely is there an individual or group you thought was a strength coming in, but now appears not quite as strong?
ANSWER: After losing three of their top five wide receivers this past offseason, I thought that unit could be an issue for the team in 2022 because replacing three contributing players at one position over the course of a single offseason is not easily done. But looking at that unit today, No. 2 pick George Pickens is the real deal; No. 4 pick Calvin Austin III is lightning in a bottle; and free agent pickup Gunner Olszewski is an upgrade as a receiver/returner. Add in Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool and that's five, and both Miles Boykin and Anthony Miller are NFL-caliber receivers. That makes seven, and they'll only keep six at most.

As for the unit that hasn't lived up to what I expected thus far, it would be the offensive line, but specifically the interior of the offensive line. I believe the Steelers are sold at tackle, with Chuks Okorafor on the right side and Dan Moore Jr. on the left side, but the interior hasn't lived up to expectations. Kevin Dotson is injured again, and so the competition at left guard with Kendrick Green never really materialized. Watching Mason Cole, a free agent signing, I'm not all that certain he's consistently been better than J.C. Hassenauer, and at right guard James Daniels, another free agent signing, hasn't looked anything like the butt-kicker he was in Chicago for the Bears. Maybe that changes, and there's time for it to change, but right now, that would be the area I would point to as believing it was going to be better than it has been so far.

GREG PARSONS FROM MOUNT LAUREL, NJ: Now that training camp is in full swing, do the players still do strength training/weightlifting? If yes, is it optional, or all players are required to do this?
ANSWER: Yes, the weight room at Saint Vincent College is a busy place on a daily basis. And if you're a player in an NFL training camp, there isn't a whole lot of anything that's optional.

BILL HAMMOND FROM VERONA, PA: We will be attending our first Steelers training camp next week. If the team moves the practice time up, will it be announced the day of practice or the day before? A fan from Harrisburg will be meeting us.
ANSWER: The announcement on whether practice is being moved is made once the decision is final, and with things like the weather it's not always possible to know what it's going to be 24 hours into the future. I can tell you this: Coach Mike Tomlin's strong preference is to hold practice on the grass fields on campus at Saint Vincent College and for practice to begin at 1:55 p.m. so that the bulk of the work takes place during the heat of the day. I'm sorry, but that's the best I can tell you.

LEANDER SANSBURY FROM BEACH, VA: I once heard Dwight White say that the 1976 Steelers defense was the best, most dominant defense of that Steel Curtain era of four Super Bowls in six seasons. I was lucky enough to have seen those great Steelers teams during that dynasty. But is it a generally accepted fact that the 1976 defense was the best during that stretch run according to players on that team and available statistics during that span?
ANSWER: I have no idea what the players think of the 1976 defense vs. the defenses on the Steelers teams that won Super Bowl IX, Super Bowl X, Super Bowl XIII, and Super Bowl XIV, but I personally am a believer that units on the teams that win championships are better than units on teams that didn't win championships. What the 1976 Steelers defense did to carry the team into the playoffs – 28 points allowed and five shutouts over the final nine games in which the Steelers went from a 1-4 start to a 10-4 final regular season record – was spectacular. But in the AFC Championship Game vs. the Raiders, that defense allowed 157 yards rushing, two touchdown passes, and had no takeaways in what turned out to be a 24-7 loss. If the defense was the "greatest," shouldn't it have been able to do more in that critical game?

As examples, the 1974 defense held the Vikings to nine first downs, 17 rushing yards, 119 total yards, had five takeaways (three interceptions and two fumble recoveries), 12 passes defensed, and scored the first points with a safety in Super Bowl IX; the 1975 defense had seven sacks and three interceptions, including one on the game's final play to protect a 21-17 lead in Super Bowl X; and the 1979 defense protected a 24-19 lead with an interception by Jack Lambert late in the fourth quarter that was turned into a clinching touchdown drive in a 31-19 win over the Rams. To assume the 1976 defense automatically was the best of the bunch does a disservice to those other units that came through in critical situations to win Lombardi trophies, in my opinion.

JEFF BOYD FROM WHEELING, WV: This has to do with jersey numbers. Both Larry Ogunjobi and Dan Moore Jr. are wearing No. 65. When the season starts, will that continue or will one of the two have to change numbers?
ANSWER: Two players on the same team cannot wear the same jersey number in the regular season, and so one of those two guys will have to switch to a different number. If I were to guess, I would predict that Ogunjobi will have to switch unless he comes to some financial arrangement with Moore that would convince Moore to switch.

NICK MOSES FROM SIMI VALLEY, CA: I realize both are important here, but what will be the larger determining factor in who wins the starting quarterback job – training camp performance or preseason game performance?
ANSWER: Here is what Coach Mike Tomlin said about that on the Thursday before the preseason opener: "Man, is it exciting to kind of be at this point of development. It's time to get this group in the stadium and compete against some unfamiliar guys, to be in game-like circumstances and have to deal with some of the transitional things associated with play. In practices, game-like drills are coordinated and organized. Just to see their ability to move and function fluidly in the midst of actual play is a significant step. No question, the performances under those circumstances are weighted more heavily than they are under these circumstances (at training camp), so we're really excited about that."

BOB SAUERS FROM PLEASANTON, CA: Was there ever a true competition for the starting quarterback position? Based on what I read in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports pages and what friends in the area have told me, the so-called competition is a joke. It would appear that Mike Tomlin anointed Mitch Trubisky as the starter on day one.
ANSWER: Let's get a few things straight. The competition for the starting quarterback job is ongoing because no decision has been made. And if you choose to use the Post-Gazette as the ultimate authority that's your prerogative, but I'll just tell you that if you've been a faithful reader of the Post-Gazette sports pages over the past several months, you also read that the Steelers weren't going to draft Kenny Pickett in the first round and that they weren't going to get a contract extension done with Diontae Johnson. How's that looking right about now?

BRAD SMITH FROM SILVER SPRING MD: I was wondering if you were issued a Guardian Cap helmet cover to protect against banging your head on the desk while reading yet another question about who the starting quarterback will be?
ANSWER: Actually, I sometimes believe a better use of a Guardian Cap helmet cover would be to protect the "position change" people from sustaining any additional damage.

DOUGLAS STEWARD FROM BELLINGHAM, WA: Why don't the Steelers ever try Derek Watt at inside linebacker. T.J. Watt was a tight end. Derek has been a special teams mainstay, so he knows how to tackle.
ANSWER: I rest my case.