Let’s get to it:
NOAH LANG FROM NEW YORK, NY: Do you feel that Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and T.J. Watt were shafted by not being voted to the Pro Bowl? Ben is second in the league in passing yards, has a better passer rating than Tom Brady, and somehow Brady sneaks in. Smith-Schuster arguably is having a better season than Antonio Brown, and Watt is fifth in the league in tackles. How is the Pro Bowl not just a popularity contest?
ANSWER: Since votes are cast and counted to determine the AFC and NFC rosters for the Pro Bowl, it is by definition a popularity contest. In fact, every election – for political office to Homecoming King and Queen – is a popularity contest, and I always have believed that the results of any election reveal more about the voters than about the outcome of said election. And then there’s this when considering the outcome of Pro Bowl voting: Players typically don’t make their first Pro Bowl until one year after they deserve it, and they keep getting voted to the Pro Bowl until one year after they no longer deserve to go.
All of the Steelers players you cite – Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and T.J. Watt – compete at positions where it is very difficult for a newcomer to break through. Roethlisberger is a six-time Pro Bowl selection already, and there are only three quarterbacks on each conference’s roster. The AFC selections are Patrick Mahomes, Philip Rivers, and Tom Brady. And in addition to Roethlisberger, I believe credible arguments could be made for Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson to have made the Pro Bowl over Brady.
Smith-Schuster led the AFC in receptions with 95 heading into this weekend’s games, but each of the four players voted to the AFC squad at wide receiver can cite a statistical category to justify his selection. DeAndre Hopkins has 94 catches and 11 touchdowns; Tyreek Hill leads the conference with a 16.7 average per catch to go along with 11 touchdowns; Keenan Allen is the primary playmaker on an 11-3 Chargers team; and Antonio Brown leads all AFC receivers with 13 touchdowns.
Watt is in the outside linebacker category, and not only is the competition there brutal, but the voting is almost always based completely on sack statistics. Von Miller leads the AFC with 14.5 sacks; Dee Ford is third among conference linebackers with 11.5; and Jadeveon Clowney is fifth with eight, which ranks him behind rookie Bradley Chubb (12) and Watt (11). But Clowney has greater name recognition as a former first overall pick in a draft.
My experience has taught me not to get overly excited about Pro Bowl selections, because in the final analysis, once players who were voted to be on the respective conference rosters start declining to attend, just about everybody who is remotely qualified gets a chance to take part.
SAM LE TISSIER FROM GUERNSEY, UK: During timeouts you see “waterboys” run on the field to hydrate players. What would happen if one was still running off the field when the offense snapped the ball, would the team get a penalty flag (for example 12 men on the field).
ANSWER: First of all, the people hydrating the players during timeouts are athletic trainers, and the game officials make sure the field is cleared of those kind of people before they put the ball in play.
CHARLES DEMUMBRUM FROM TULLAHOMA, TN: Do you think bringing a linebacker coach in to consult before the New England game had any impact? I have heard no mention of this. I'm not good enough with the Xs and Os to say, but I did hear commentators say several times (Tony Romo) that the Steelers were doing a great job of taking the middle of the field away.
ANSWER: Jim Hermann is the coach to whom you are referring, and I really don’t think it would be accurate to credit him with the performance of the Steelers defense against the Patriots. Here is what Coach Mike Tomlin said about that visit when I asked him about it a couple of days before the game against the Patriots:
“It’s really just allowing an unemployed coach to visit. I don’t necessarily view it as helping with practice, to be honest with you. I’m old-school. Visiting coaches are part of old-school ball. We’ve brought in Monte Kiffin in the past. We brought in a guy named Don Yanowsky, which probably didn’t register on the radar because the name isn’t familiar. We’ve also had a special teams assistant in here twice already this year by the name of Todd Yoder. Again, that probably didn’t register because that’s not a household name. It’s standard football operations for us, guys we have intimate relationships with, guys who are football coaches who are out of the loop, if you will. It gives you an opportunity to keep them close to the game, and if they can glean some information and it helps them as they move onto their next opportunity, and if they have some information or insight that can help us. We do it big in the spring. We do it big in Latrobe. We do it in-season on a much smaller scale because of the intimacy of the information and so forth. And those people are guys with whom I have personal relationships. Jim and I go way back – he was the defensive coordinator at Michigan when I coached in the Midwest at the University of Cincinnati. We were on that same speaker circuit together, two young guys cutting our teeth in the profession.”
BOB WALKER FROM NASHVILLE, TN: Historically, how have the Steelers done playing the Saints in the Superdome?
ANSWER: The Steelers are 4-5 against the Saints in New Orleans since that franchise’s inaugural season of 1967. The Superdome opened on Aug. 3, 1975, and since then, the Steelers’ record vs. the Saints in New Orleans is 2-3.
MATHEW MCKENNA FROM BROOK PARK, OH: In your article about "dirty moves" you made mention about our long snapper having an MCL injury. Obviously he is still playing, but what would happen if he were to get injured during a game and be unable to play? Who would take over for the long snapper? Also, who could take over for the punter, kicker, or holder if the starters were to be injured?
ANSWER: Mike Tomlin said the team has a plan for those kinds of injuries, but he also indicated he preferred not to get into too much detail about the plan. Probably to protect the players who would have to be filling in at those important spots. Here is what Tomlin said in a recent interview with me about it:
“It’s just interesting fodder for me. Over the years, having the perspective of being here a long time, you know how testy those circumstances are when you go to your backup snapper. I can recall about 10 years ago calling on James Harrison when Greg Warren sustained a knee injury. I remember our two options were James Harrison and James Farrior. And I called them both over and I said, “Who wants to do it?” And it wasn’t so much about who wanted to do it, it was the fact James Harrison was less resistant to doing it. The backup long-snapper isn’t listed on the depth chart. We have a plan. It’s not a comfortable one. I’d just as soon not talk about it."
DUSTIN COVAULT FROM MONTROSE, CO: To those who have submitted questions about having Al Villanueva and Darrius Heyward-Bey playing defensive back, please just stop. You are giving all fans a bad name.
ANSWER: I don’t think they’re listening to you, Dustin.
CHRIS BARBRE FROM OAKLAND, TN: There’s one thing I’ve wanted the Steelers to try since Ryan Shazier was injured. Since our backup inside linebackers have struggled, why not give Roosevelt Nix a shot there? He’s a great tackler, as seen on special teams. He even once played defense.
ANSWER: Roosevelt Nix played on the defensive line in college, which doesn’t necessarily qualify him for the role Ryan Shazier filled for the Steelers. But, hey, don’t let me get in the way of your fantasy.