Let’s get to it:
DAVE DIMAURO FROM ANSONIA, CT: Who decides the schedule? The league? The team? If the Steelers picked the Bengals to finish off the season whoever made that decision should be fired. The last few seasons have brought devastating injuries in the final games of the regular season against the Bengals. Why play your nemesis at the end?
ANSWER: While teams can make requests to the NFL regarding its regular season schedule, those requests aren’t necessarily granted, and the entirety of a team’s regular season schedule is determined by the NFL. Some years ago, in an effort to keep the end of the regular season interesting, the NFL adopted a tactic of scheduling games against division opponents as much as possible over the final weeks of a regular season. Looking back at recent Steelers’ schedules, over the final four weekends of a regular season, the team played two division opponents in 2017, three in 2016, three in 2015, two in 2014, two in 2013, two in 2012, two in 2011, and two in 2010. This season, there was only one division foe over the final four weekends, and it happens to be the Bengals on Dec. 30.
EBY PETERS FROM CHANHASSEN, MN: Do you think all the kicking woes this season are because of Chris Boswell? Why is anyone not considering the impact of the long-snapper and holder? I would be surprised that the same kicker from last year has regressed so much just because of his kicking.
ANSWER: The whole process involved in the placekicking – snap, hold, protection – is evaluated after every game, and the determination has been made that the process has been good enough but the actual kicking of the ball has not. The surprise you express that the same guy who converted 92.1 percent of his field goals during a Pro Bowl season in 2016 could, within the span of months, turn into a player capable of making extra points an adventure likely is shared by the Steelers. That could be one of the reasons why, to this point, the team has been trying to work with him as opposed to cutting the cord and going with someone else.
BRIEN LORE FROM LOGANVILLE, GA: What do you think the Steelers chances are against New England this week? Also is Ben Roethlisberger healthy enough to play, because it doesn't look like Joshua Dobbs is ready?
ANSWER: To beat the Patriots, I believe the Steelers will have to play their best game of the season in these two respects: on offense, they will have to be highly efficient in terms of maximizing points scored based on their number of possessions, and their defense cannot again get shut-out on the takeaway scorecard. As for the availability, Ben Roethlisberger has said he will play on Sunday, and Mike Tomlin said he anticipates Roethlisberger being available vs. New England.
ALLEN JACKSON FROM GREENVILLE, SC: When a player is suspended for violating the substance abuse policy are they retested before being able to come back and play?
ANSWER: Let’s dispense with the subtleties, shall we?. When a player is in the program, as Le’Veon Bell is, and that player is involved in a contract dispute that currently is preventing him from being on an active roster, he is still subjected to the terms of the NFL’s drug policy. The only way that would change is if the player would retire or otherwise indicate in some official manner that he does not plan return to play in the NFL. So the bottom line is that Bell has been in the NFL’s drug program throughout his “holdout” this year regarding the franchise tag, and he will continue to be subjected to those terms through whatever happens when free agency hits in March 2019.
HENRY DUDDY FROM HONG KONG: With the lateral from James Washington to JuJu Smith-Schuster, does James get any credit for the catch and the yards from scrimmage to where he caught it, or is it all on Juju, with him getting credited with a catch?
ANSWER: James Washington gets credit for a catch and the yardage from the line of scrimmage. JuJu Smith-Schuster gets credit for the yardage after catching the lateral from Washington.
JUSTIN KEHLER FROM WINNIPEG, MANITOBA, CANADA: How do you feel about the clock management once the Raiders were in the Steelers’ red zone with nearly two minutes to go? Would taking some timeouts to preserve the clock for a potential shot at the end zone had the Raiders scored, which they did, not have been a wiser decision than letting it run down?
ANSWER: Here is my honest opinion about clock management: the only issue that matters is the outcome. In the case of the game in Oakland, the Steelers’ clock management resulted in them being in position for a 40-yard field goal to tie the game and send it into overtime. And that would’ve been an overtime in which the Steelers would have had Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. In the NFL, if a team cannot make a 40-yard field goal to tie the game, the issue isn’t clock management. The issue is the placekicker.
FRANK COUNTY FROM HIGHLAND, UT: Why do the linebackers continue to be matched up against the opposing team’s inside receivers, especially the team’s leading receivers and tight ends, on crucial third downs? Kansas City, Denver, the Chargers, and last week Oakland, all had success with those matchups.
ANSWER: What you’re describing are issues that today’s NFL offenses pose to opponents on a weekly basis. Teams think nothing of going with an empty set on possession downs, which means the defense has to cover five eligible receivers. If a defense would line up with four linemen and nothing else but defensive backs, that could leave the unit vulnerable to running plays. This is just one example of how an offense can use its own personnel groupings to dictate a defense’s personnel, and then there also ways for an offense to use formations to get favorable matchups once all of the personnel is on the field. This is why there is such a premium put on hybrid players in today’s NFL, those being coverage safeties who can play close to the line of scrimmage to help vs. the running game, and linebackers who can play in space to help the defensive backs in coverage. It’s not a simple problem to solve, and one of the moves the Steelers made in the offseason in an attempt to solve this issue – the signing of unrestricted free agent Morgan Burnett – hasn’t panned out the way the team hoped/planned.
JAY HUNTER FROM DUPONT, PA: If a wild card team has the second highest win total in the conference, will it get a bye, or is it only division winners that qualify for a bye week?
ANSWER: If a team does not win its division, it is not eligible for the bye in the first round of the playoffs, and it’s not eligible for any home games in the playoffs unless that team somehow would be matched against another wild card team with a lower seed in the conference. That’s why it’s so important to win a division title in the NFL.