Let's get to it:
MATTHEW RICHARDSON FROM MOODY, AL: Assuming Ryan Switzer makes the roster, do you think he will be back there as a return man again? If not, who do you believe will replace him as the return man?
ANSWER: There are qualities an NFL coach demands in his returners, and at the top of that list is ball security. It doesn't matter how fast or quick or elusive a returner is, if he cannot be counted on to hold onto the football, he won't have a job. Another quality is decision-making – when to field a punt and when to let it go and hope for a touchback. Ryan Switzer is a returner who has reliable hands and generally makes good decisions, and so any decision to replace him would not be as automatic for a coach as it would be for fans or the media. Anyway, over the course of last season, Diontae Johnson gained the Steelers' confidence by being a consistent fielder of punts and by making good decisions back there as the deep man. Then Johnson broke an 85-yard return for a touchdown against Arizona, and he finished the season leading the NFL with a 12.4-yard average on punt returns. Based on that, I believe Johnson has secured the punt returning job. As for kickoff returns, having no preseason games will make that decision more difficult.
LES CLEMENS FROM FORT WORTH, TX: For this season, I am reading that some stadiums are allowing limited numbers of fans to attend games, and others are thinking of no fans at all. Then there is the fake crowd noise issue. What have you heard about Heinz Field?
ANSWER: Last Saturday (Aug. 22), the Steelers held a night practice at Heinz Field, and during the session Steelers President Art Rooney II was interviewed by Bob Pompeani of KDKA-TV and was asked about the issue of hosting fans at Heinz Field in 2020.
"We miss the fans," said Rooney. "We haven't given up completely on potentially having fans at some point during the season. We continue to work with the Governor's office on that. We'll see. If things improve, perhaps we will have some fans at some point during the season. It will be different. The homefield advantage will be very different around the league. Some stadiums are going to have fans, some are not. It's like everything else this year – it's going to be an unusual situation we just have to adapt to."
As for the pumped-in crowd noise, the Steelers also introduced that to the Saturday night practice, and Coach Mike Tomlin was asked if the type and volume on display during the practice would meet his approval should it be used during the regular season.
"I don't care. I really don't," said Tomlin. "Like I mentioned about 2020, it's important that we have a hardcore plan but that we're light on our feet, and we cannot let some of the changing variables be a significant component of our performances. So, crowds, no crowds, artificial noise, the quality of (noise), music, all of those are subject to change based on venue and circumstances. That's just something we all have to learn to deal with, and so I reserve opinion in that regard."
TRISTON CREEKMORE FROM GRAFTON, MA: I want to start off by saying I absolutely love this column. Your insight is great and at times hilarious. In your opinion, what are the three biggest pitfalls that could derail our season outside of a key injury?
ANSWER: If the Steelers stay healthy, I believe the roster is good enough to contend for a championship. There is the possibility that depth issues could arise, but if they stay healthy those depth issues would be mitigated significantly. I'm not going to predict that the defense will post 38 takeaways again, but the talent certainly is too good for the unit to fall back to the 15 takeaways (eight interceptions) the defense posted in 2018. Outside of "key injuries" there isn't much standing in the way of the Steelers being a season-long contender, but in today's NFL there are at least a dozen other teams that legitimately can make the same claim.
MARK O'MALLEY FROM MANTUA, OH: JuJu Smith-Schuster had a disappointing drop-off in production last year. Shockingly, he looked like a broken down shadow of his rookie season self. I read he worked very hard in the offseason to gain strength and hand skills. Have you seen any indication in camp that JuJu might return to his former exciting player status?
ANSWER: I have seen some indications, yes. He's wearing No. 7.
KHARI CLEMMONS FROM HOLLYWOOD, FL: Several teams, when outfitting their players for training camp, put their defense in one color jersey and their offense in another color jersey, except for the quarterback, who is wearing a red jersey. My assumption has always been that is to ward off players from hitting the quarterback and risking injury. To my knowledge, the Steelers have never put their quarterbacks in a different color jersey than the rest of the offense during practices. Do the Steelers have a philosophy for not using the "keep away" jersey for their quarterbacks during training camp?
ANSWER: Coach Mike Tomlin constantly and consistently preaches the gospel of "good practice etiquette" to his players, and one of the golden rules of "good practice etiquette" is that the quarterback is not to be hit. In fact, in 11-on-11 sessions where the quarterback is executing pass plays, Tomlin has said the pass rush and pass protection are "tapered" in those situations because the focus is on the action taking place down the field between the receivers and the coverage people. Pass rushers and pass protectors work on their craft in other drills that don't involve the quarterbacks. The Steelers never have utilized a different color jersey for the quarterbacks during practices. Not Chuck Noll, not Bill Cowher, and not Tomlin.
ABE CHUTA FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: When can someone officially claim he belongs to an NFL team? We have an acquaintance whose grandson did not get drafted by an NFL team but later got a tryout. His grandson didn't make the roster, and yet his grandparents are boasting he's an NFL player.
ANSWER: In the NFL, players are paid for being on a roster or the practice squad or on the injured reserve list during the regular season. That's when players earn money and accrue time toward their pension and free agency. Individuals who attend a tryout camp or a training camp or even participate in the preseason, those individuals don't show up on any of the lists pertinent to be considered an NFL player if they're not on a roster during the regular season, even if for only a portion of a regular season. Grandparents can be proud and brag on their grandchildren, but when it comes to names on lists, the regular season is what matters.
DAVID MAURO FROM GRAYLING, MI: If the stands are going to be empty this year due to COVID-19, are there any plans from the networks to televise more games?
ANSWER: All NFL games already are televised in one market or another, and so in that sense it's impossible to televise more of them. There is speculation that the league and its network partners are discussing expanding to Saturdays (if there is no college football) or to Fridays (if there's no high school football). But right now, that's speculation. And since one of the lessons COVID-19 has taught us many times already during this pandemic is that it's foolish to make plans too far into the future, because things can change and change quickly.
MELVIN GIBBONS FROM WASILLA, AK: We've not seen anything on television about Ben Roethlisberger, and when do the Steelers play their first game?
ANSWER: If you're looking for information on Ben Roethlisberger, I would suggest Steelers.com, where there are stories, videos, and Zoom interviews available that chronicle him and the team from the time training camp opened in late July. As of now, and things could change, the Steelers regular season opener is at 7:15 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 14 at the New York Giants.
TIM GAYDOSH FROM MOUNT AIRY, MD: In your recent article on the impact of no preseason, which I believe is going to be huge but fair since all teams are in the same boat, Mike Tomlin talked about not being able to replicate special teams play in camp. Why can't they do that? Is it fear of injury? CBA limitations?
ANSWER: I believe what Coach Mike Tomlin is trying to explain is that there are certain things in NFL football that cannot be prepared for and practiced outside of live game situations, even if those games are only preseason games. Think of it as the difference between a fire drill and actually evacuating a building during a fire. There's more pressure, more stress involved during the actual event, and people may react differently under pressure, which could change the entire scenario for everyone else involved. Like Mike Tyson always said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face." Working on things in practice relates to having a plan, but when the action is live sometimes you're going to get punched in the face. Then what? How do you react? Do you adapt and still get the job done? That's what I believe Tomlin meant, and I believe there are a lot of other aspects of game play in the NFL falling under the same category.
MICHAEL RIJO FROM DERBY, CT: Is it possible that Mason Rudolph is the answer at quarterback in the post-Ben Roethlisberger era? I believe he was thrown into the fire and did well until being nagged with injuries and some scenarios that would've been impossible for any quarterback.
ANSWER: It's possible that he is. It's possible that he's not. Trying to answer that question now really comes down to one thing: your opinion of Mason Rudolph. If you're someone who likes Rudolph, you would tend to think he can be the answer. And if you don't like Rudolph, you will tend to think he cannot be the answer. What I cannot understand is why so many people believe it's so important to answer a question before it needs to be answered. And really, it's a question that's going to be "answered" with what ultimately will be nothing more than a belief – do you believe he can do the job or do you believe he cannot do the job – because there is no definitive way to predict the future.
HOMER KIMBRELL FROM CINCINNATI, OH: With some new faces in the Steelers wide receiver and tight end rooms, have you noticed the team practicing more formations with multiple tight end and/or wide receiver sets? It will be interesting to see how they get all of these guys on the field.
ANSWER: The Steelers employed a lot of multiple-tight-end, multiple-wide-receiver personnel groupings last season, but they just weren't as effective as in previous years because Ben Roethlisberger wasn't the quarterback. As for more such groupings, there are only so many possibilities, because there can only be a combined number of five backs/receivers/tight ends on the field at one time, and there usually won't be more than eight combined tight ends and wide receivers active on game days. And I also can assure you that getting guys on the field is the least of the coaching staff's concerns. The productive ones are going to see the most playing time.
JAMES MAC PHERSON FROM BEACHWOOD, NJ: To save a spot on the practice squad, should we look for a placekicker who can also punt?
ANSWER: Where would one look for such an individual? Can you think of any, either at the pro level or at the college level, who are accomplished at both? Because if you remember the Steelers in 2018, even a proven NFL placekicker having a bad year can cost his team enough games where it becomes the difference between making the playoffs and going home at the end of the regular season. Having a dependable placekicker is more important than saving a spot on the practice squad. What you suggest sure sounds good, but it's not real.