Asked and Answered

Asked and Answered: Dec. 2

Let's get to it:

BILL MOLINARO FROM TOMS RIVER, NJ: Do you think you may be a little one-sided in your comparison of Najee Harris and Franco Harris? Franco started in only 10 games as a rookie and in only two of his first five. Overall, he averaged 5.6 yards per carry, double that of Najee and gained 1055 yards rushing in a 14-game season. Harris had great vision for the cutback and a burst that I have not seen in Najee, which enabled him to have a 75-yard run in his rookie season. I love everything I've seen from Najee and believe he will be a great back, but his rookie season thus far really does not compare with that of the Immaculate Reception man.
ANSWER: I was answering this question: "Najee Harris has shown everyone why the Steelers used a first-round pick to get him. How do other notable Steelers rookie running backs compare in stats through their first ten games?" All I was doing was reciting a statistic to answer the question that was submitted. And the statistic is this: Najee Harris became the first rookie running back in franchise history with at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage in his first 10 NFL games (685 yards rushing and 337 yards receiving for 1,022 yards from scrimmage).

LARRY HAMPTON FROM LANGHORNE, PA: Do you think the Steelers should go back to a 4-3 defense and an offense using a fullback and an extra offensive lineman? I think it would help to control the running game on both sides of the ball.
ANSWER: What's your plan when the opposing team doesn't cooperate and throws the ball all over the place while you're sitting in a 4-3 alignment with four defensive linemen on the field? That's the thing about the way the game is now played at the NFL level: opposing offenses no longer adhere to some of the old-time tendencies. I guarantee you if a team that's playing Tampa Bay loads up to stop the run, Tom Brady will think nothing of throwing the ball 29 straight times. I saw that exact thing happen to the Steelers in the 2002 opener when Brady was a young quarterback in New England. As for loading up with extra offensive linemen and other big people to run the football, what's your plan when the defense substitutes a bunch of big run-stuffers to counter that? Then once you substitute, the rules stipulate that the opponent be given time to match your substitutions with their own. Offenses have to be able to run or pass without wholesale substation of personnel, and that's why defensive players need to be able to play vs. the run or the pass.

TIMOTHY TRATHOWEN FROM SOUTH VIENNA, OH: I want to know if it is time to part ways with Joe Haden? He is rarely in the lineup and when he is I do not see him being as effective.
ANSWER: Here are some things I know: Since signing with the Steelers, Joe Haden has missed 11 of a possible 75 regular season games, including three this season. During his time with the Steelers, opposing quarterbacks have completed 52.2 percent of the passes thrown at Haden, with 13 touchdowns, nine interceptions, and a rating of 73.4. As a point of comparison, in 2020 Steven Nelson allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 58.2 percent of the passes thrown to the receiver he was covering with a rating of 97.0. Throughout his time with the team, Haden, who will be 33 on April 14, has been, and still is, the Steelers' No. 1 cornerback. Some time ago when I mentioned to a well-respected NFL defensive coach that I appreciated the play of a certain cornerback because he was so competitive when the opposing quarterback threw the ball to the receiver he was covering, that coach told me that the really good cornerbacks are the ones who discourage opposing quarterbacks from throwing the ball to the receiver he is covering in the first place. I mention this as an explanation for why Haden might not be seeing as much action on his side of the field. Finally, fans shouldn't be so quick to suggest "moving on" from one player before it's certain there's another player ready to take his place.

BRUCE CHYKA FROM STILWELL, KS: Is Ken Whisenhunt still coaching?
ANSWER: He is not. Ken Whisenhunt's last year in the NFL was in 2019 when he was the offensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Chargers.

LARRY POPLOSKI FROM FAIRPORT, NY: The Steelers draft philosophy during the Chuck Noll glory years was to pick the "best player available" regardless of need. It worked out well. Given our current needs at various positions, do you envision a return to this draft philosophy in upcoming drafts?
ANSWER: Free agency and the salary cap make the draft a completely different exercise than it was during the 1970s when a team had unlimited rights to every player it drafted. Those were the days, for instance, when a team could spend a high draft pick on a player and then have him sit for a couple-or-three years behind the veteran incumbent and learn the system and how the position is played in the NFL. Now, sitting a rookie for three years means a team might have only one year, maybe two at the most, before it has to make a multimillion-dollar decision on whether to use a franchise tag, negotiate a long-term extension, or look elsewhere for his replacement before the guy hits unrestricted free agency. Good drafting teams today don't reach for a particular position, but need has to be factored into every selection. If a team has multiple needs, what it should do when its turn to pick comes up is select the best player, which is why the Steelers, as an example, rank the players regardless of position.

JASON PRASTER FROM SAN ANTONIO, TX: T.J. Watt was placed on the Reserve/Covid-19 list on Monday, Nov. 29. If he's not symptomatic, he can return in 10 days, correct? The 10th day would fall on Dec. 9, which is our game against the Vikings. Will he be able to play against the Vikings?
ANSWER: If T.J. Watt is vaccinated, he would be able to return to the team as soon as he can post two negative tests with 24 hours in between. That's what happened with Ben Roethlisberger when he was placed on the COVID list on the day before the game against the Detroit Lions. Because he was vaccinated and then turned in two negative tests with 24 hours in between, Roethlisberger was cleared to return, and he started the following week's game against the Chargers in Los Angeles.

BOBBY STICKEL FROM ITHACA, NY: Blocked punts! The Steelers have had a couple this year. My question has to do with the strategy of blocking a punt: Is this something they try to do on every play, or is it more situational (field position, score of the game, time left on the clock, etc.)? Tactically, does it work similar to a blitz, i.e., they rush an extra man but potentially sacrifice return coverage?
ANSWER: I'll start off with some general answers to your specific questions, and then I'll allow Coach Mike Tomlin to describe some of the more detailed elements of blocking a punt in the NFL. The Steelers do not try to block a punt on every down, and while it's situational to some degree it has less to do with position on the field and the score of the game as it does with when the opponent provides the alignment they believe is conducive to the schematics they want to use to block the punt. And tactically, it's less about outnumbering the punt team's blockers as it is about creating deception/hesitancy among those blockers.

Here's what Tomlin said about what goes into blocking a punt in the NFL: "The schematics of it, your plan in terms of how you're going to attack their protection, is one component of it. But then there's also the skill element of it relative to the positions that (the punt block unit) plays. And that's being able to get your hands to the block point. I think a lot of people take that for granted. It is not something that everybody is good at or capable of, to be quite honest with you. We drill it so we get a sense of the aptitude of the people we employ in that area, and the people who show an aptitude are the guys who play in that phase of the game. And then we hone those skills to a fine edge in an effort to prepare them to get to that block point and deliver. You'd be shocked watching football tape how often, week in and week out, guys are at the block point and lack the skill and detail. Fundamentals prevent blocks from happening, when the ball goes underneath them, or they miss the block point (because) their hands are over their head and the block point is waist high. Just the lack of detail in that space is really shocking when you really study it."

Then was asked, "You mentioned schematics. Is part of that confusing the protection for the punter?"
Tomlin answered, "No question. Some of it is simply structural, meaning there's something we do that we like vs. something they do from a protection standpoint. And so that requires no tricking or deception, and then some of it is pre-snap disguise oriented. You'll go from a six-man side to a four-man side, and that's why oftentimes you see a number of guys crossing the ball just prior to a punt snap. You'll show a four-four look in terms of the potential rush before you go to a six-two look right before the snap. And so, there's communication and coordination that has to happen from a protection standpoint that allows blocks to happen. Like (against the Chargers), a four-by-four look went to a five-by-three look just prior to the snap, and that was one of the components that allowed Miles (Killebrew) to get home and get his hands on the ball."

JAMES IVERS FROM LIBERTY, IL: Thank you so much for the two actual LOLs I had from your Nov. 30 Asked and Answered. However, tonight I couldn't sleep, and my wife was trying to sleep. I'm in the doghouse and have to turn my phone off now.
ANSWER: Thanks for the kind words and allow me to clue you in on something I learned some years ago: Happy wife, happy life.