Asked and Answered

Asked and Answered: Aug. 18

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LATROBE, Pa. – Let's get to it:

BILL CALVIN FROM TAMPA, FL:
Over the past few years, the Steelers have spent a number of high draft picks on linebackers, but they still don't seem to have much of a pass rush. Is this due to those picks being the wrong guys, the wrong scheme, poor execution, or what?

There are four former No. 1 draft picks on the depth chart at linebacker – Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, and Bud Dupree . Timmons and Shazier are inside linebackers, and Dupree isn't even halfway through the preseason of his rookie year in the NFL. Timmons and Shazier don't consistently rush the passer, and it's way too early to make any pronouncements about Dupree. So I guess your question is a roundabout way of asking whether Jarvis Jones is going to become the kind of pass-rusher the Steelers envisioned he could be when they picked him in 2013. The defense is going to need production from Jones as a pass-rusher this season, but to me it remains a wait-and-see situation. I don't believe you can put too much into what we're seeing during the preseason, because defensive coordinator Keith Butler is intent on keeping as much under wraps as possible before the start of the regular season. And it's OK for players at positions other than linebacker to make significant contributions to the team's sack total, and I'm expecting that from Cam Heyward and maybe Stephon Tuitt in 2015.

SHAWN MORTON-BELTZ FROM GIRARD, PA:
I thought I read awhile back that the option of switching Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas at the safety positions wasn't out of the question. Has there been any further thought put into this or are they set with them being where they are now?

With Troy Polamalu having retired, I don't know that the difference between strong safety and free safety will be as pronounced in the defense to be coordinated by Keith Butler as it was under Dick LeBeau. Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas have just now started to be on the practice field together on a consistent basis, and I think their roles will become more defined as that process continues.

CHRIS FARIS FROM SACRAMENTO, CA:
Was there anything other than coincidence that the shift to a cover-2 defense coincided with Troy Polamalu retiring? There were always rumblings of a switch, and I know Mike Tomlin's history with it, but Troy's style would have been a bit wrong for that scheme, I think.

You are correct. Using Troy Polamalu as a cover-2 safety would not have maximized his talents. His speed, athleticism, and instincts made him an ideal player to deploy closer to the line of scrimmage than a cover-2 safety. As an example a cover-2 safety never would be close enough to the line of scrimmage to time a snap and leap over the center to tackle the quarterback before he has a chance to do anything with the football. During the final couple of seasons of his career, Polamalu's speed had deteriorated to the point where he couldn't cover the ground necessary to play a deep safety position, and his quickness wasn't what it had been when he was at his anticipating best. Polamalu had to retire before this system could be implemented successfully.

WILLIAM GRAY FROM MCHENRY, IL:
Do you believe the current defensive veterans have the skills to transition to a cover-2 scheme? Most importantly, the linebackers? It seems that we have players with a lot of speed - isn't that a key for success in a cover-2 scheme?

This was Coach Mike Tomlin's answer to a question about what kind of players are needed on the back end for cover-2: "Guys with good vision. Guys who are capable of being disciplined from a vision standpoint. Guys who are capable of seeing one thing and feeling another. Ronde Barber is the quintessential corner. There was nothing he couldn't do. He had great vision, a good, consistent, physical tackler. Great anticipation. It allowed him to excel. Over the years, I've fielded a lot of questions about him, and the scheme, and what the scheme did for him. My contention is that he did a lot for the scheme. A lot of what I teach, the principles I teach today's players were consistently developed and done by him within the scheme and became a benchmark of expectations."

As for the linebackers, speed is a skill that will allow the ones charged with rushing the passer to get there in a timely fashion, because Tomlin also said, "The pass rush is a tremendous part of the coverage. The ball has to come out of the quarterback's hand on time. If it doesn't, it breaks the coverage down." Then there are the linebackers who will be charged with dropping into coverage, and speed will allow them to get there quicker, and to get deeper when necessary. Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons both are fast enough to accomplish those things.

RAY FURMAN FROM DENVER, CO:
First, thank you for Asked and Answered. With Landry Jones getting all but one drive in the first two preseason games, what does that tell us about Bruce Gradkowski's injury. Are they getting Jones ready to be the No. 2 quarterback?

**

The Pittsburgh Steelers participated in another practice at Saint Vincent College, despite temperatures in the nineties.

No, the plan was to get Landry Jones as many repetitions as possible during a five-game preseason, because he just hasn't played a lot of football since being drafted in 2013. With the work Jones has been getting, he has shown improvement, even if it's not at a pace that's satisfying to a large constituency of Steelers Nation. Gradkowski returned to practice on Sunday, Aug. 16 and then when he was able to practice again on Aug. 17, those back-to-back days indicated there was no setback to his ultimate comeback. Gradkowski is the veteran backup quarterback for the 2015 season, and there was just no need to rush him back onto the practice field or into early preseason games. Even if Gradkowski hadn't been on the physically unable to perform list until Aug. 16, he still might not have played in those first two preseason games because the plan was to get Jones a lot of snaps.**

KEVIN TURNER FROM LEXINGTON, KY:
Is Tajh Boyd underwhelming in practice or is it a just that the improvement (in practice at least) of Landry Jones and the versatility of Tyler Murphy leaves little room for anyone else? I know he's getting reps in practice, but would like a little more information.

Tajh Boyd played in a no-huddle spread offense in college, and quarterbacks coming out of those systems can have a lot of trouble with a lot of the basics of playing the position at the NFL level. Receiving play-calls from the sideline and communicating them in the huddle, taking snaps from under center, things like that. Boyd had several fumbles on the quarterback-center exchange early in training camp, and coaches absolutely hate that. He has not shown them the command of the huddle that's required of a quarterback in game situations. Both Landry Jones and Tyler Murphy would play quarterback in a preseason game before Boyd at this stage. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Three hours after this Asked and Answered was published, the Steelers signed rookie WR Jarrod West, and to make room on the roster for him the team waived QB Tajh Boyd.)

WAYNE BENNER FROM DAVENPORT, FL:
After three years with the Steelers I have not seen any improvement from Landry Jones. I am aware that he does not get a lot of snaps, but still this is his third year and he still looks bad on the field. When are the Steelers going to cut their losses and cut him loose and try to pick up someone who can help the team when needed?

Landry Jones' role on the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers will be the No. 3 quarterback. There is no one they could "try to pick up" who would be better than him.

JÜRGENS HENNING FROM OSNABRÜCK, GERMANY:
Last year the Steelers had the Bills joining them in Latrobe for joint practices during training camp. At that time it was said this year the Steelers would go to the Bills training camp for joint practices. What happened to that plan?

That plan was formulated by the teams' coaches – Mike Tomlin and Doug Marrone. Because Marrone no longer works for the Bills, and the Steelers had the pleasure of playing in the Hall of Fame Game, the plan was scrapped months before their respective camps were to open. Those joint practices typically happen in the two-week time period before the preseason opener, and because of the trip to Canton, the Steelers reported to camp on July 25. With the Bills opening their camp on July 30, the schedules didn't match up well enough for a joint practice to be feasible. All of those factors played into the decision.

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