Let's get to it:
KIMBERLY SHAFFER FROM AMBLER, PA: Assuming no new COVID issues and your judgment on injury status, who do you start along the offensive line in the last two games of this season to give the Steelers the best chance of winning (and psyches don't matter)?
ANSWER: If Kevin Dotson is able to practice this week without any apparent lingering effects of his ankle injury, I would re-install him as the starting left guard. The other change I would consider is starting J.C. Hassenauer at center in place of Kendrick Green. I still believe Green can end up being the long-term starting center, but at this point as an NFL rookie he has played more games (15) and more snaps (977) than during any of his college seasons at Illinois. Maybe Green is wearing down, maybe his calf injury is limiting him in some ways, and maybe Hassenauer could inject a fresh body into the mix. I don't know why Zach Banner hasn't been able to get any playing time at right tackle since coming off the injured reserve list, but I would see how he looked in practice this week and maybe have him divide up the snaps with Chuks Okorafor.
BRIAN JENKINS FROM CULPEPER, VA: Everyone focuses mostly on the offensive line for the Steelers inability to run the ball, and rightfully so. But how important is the blocking ability of the wide receivers to the run game?
ANSWER: Run blocking is similar to pass blocking in that it requires more than just the five offensive linemen to be effective. The blocking of the wide receivers can be the difference between a 5-yard run and a 15-yard run, and it also can be the difference between a loss of yardage and a gain of yardage on runs to the perimeter. JuJu Smith-Schuster has a couple of 100-catch seasons on his NFL resume, but I also think he's missed as a blocker and a physical presence in the running game.
TODD HOJNACKI FROM CHESTER, NJ: If Ben Roethlisberger retires at the end of this season, do you really see any of these veteran "star" players who have been rumored to be a fit (Russell Wilson, Aaron Rogers, etc.) having any interest in coming to Pittsburgh next season with the current state of our offensive line?
ANSWER: I don't, and their reasons could go beyond the youth and inexperience of the offensive line. As an example, Russell Wilson has a no-trade clause in his contract, which means he would have to approve even discussions with a team interested in acquiring him via trade.
JAMES KOHN FROM POTSDAM, OH: What do you think of Ben Roethlisberger calling his own plays? I will bet the top seasoned quarterbacks do this with results.
ANSWER: At this point of this season, with the Steelers in this situation with an offense that has developed into a chronic slow-starting unit, I don't see what it would hurt to have Ben Roethlisberger call the plays, even at the line of scrimmage if the decision is made to utilize pace either throughout the game or at different portions of the game. And don't be so sure that the top quarterbacks regularly call their own plays, because they don't. Tom Brady, when he was in New England, regularly had Josh McDaniel communicating with him through his helmet microphone during games, and if you've ever seen Packers Coach Matt LaFleur on the sideline during games you can clearly see he's holding a play-call sheet, so you can bet he is communicating with Aaron Rodgers. That's the way the NFL game has evolved, where play-calling duties belong to the coaching staff. I believe that's less about the quarterback's ability to handle the job and more about the head coach wanting control over the product on the field.
RICHARD WHITE FROM PRINCETON, BC, CANADA: In your opinion, what is the single biggest factor to the defensive decline this season? If injuries, who is the most important missing person? And what do you believe is the most important position to acquire in the first two rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft?
ANSWER: The injuries to two-thirds of what everyone believed was going to be the starting defensive line is my choice as the most significant factor. Not having Stephon Tuitt, a guy who had 11 sacks and 25 hits on the quarterback in 2020, for any part of the season so far, and it is looking like the Steelers are not going to have him for any part of any regular season game; and then Tyson Alualu being injured early in the second regular season game after playing 53 snaps in the opener when the Steelers defeated the Bills in Buffalo. The absence of those players then impacted the inside linebackers and the run defense, and likely weakened the defense's ability to generate consistent pressure on the opposing quarterbacks with just four pass-rushers. Based on that, I would set a priority of strengthening the defensive line early in the upcoming draft.
KEVIN MILLER FROM BILLINGS, MT: Earlier in the season Ben Roethlisberger dropped back for a pass but lost the ball as he was trying to bring it in. The ball went straight down toward his feet and was ruled a fumble. How is that different than spiking the ball at the end of the game?
ANSWER: A spike happens immediately after the quarterback takes the snap and is obviously a method of stopping the clock. It is allowed by rule. What you described was not that and therefore is subject to interpretation by the officials in terms of whether it was a fumble or an incomplete pass.
DJ KLAKAMP FROM ERIE, PA: It looks like Najee Harris will get his 1,000 rushing yards for the season. While this used to be a mark of a good year, it seems not as significant as in the past. Now that the NFL is playing 17 regular season games, should this "milestone" number be increased to at least 1,200 yards?
ANSWER: What you're asking has to do with what is perceived to be a statistic that represents a good season. This question could have been asked when the league expanded the regular season from 12 games to 14, then from 14 games to 16. Now that a regular season is made up of 17 games, certain old barometers may appear to be watered down, but the numbers that have served as those barometers will not change. Maybe the perception might change, maybe the perception should change, but I don't think the numbers will.
JOE ASHER FROM TAMPA, FL: Is there ever a scenario where a quarterback runs out of bounds and the defender is credited with a sack/tackle?
ANSWER: This ends up being a decision made by the on-site stats crew and then it's subject to review/change by the Elias Sports Bureau, the Official Statistician for the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, Women's National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer, NBA G League and the PGA Championship. Generally, if the quarterback runs out of bounds on his own, if it happens behind the line of scrimmage on a pass play, it will be scored a team sack; if it's judged that the quarterback was forced out of bounds – even without contact – the sack could be credited to the player judged to have forced him out of bounds.
PAUL KOLESAR FROM NORTH HUNTINGTON, PA: While looking through some statistics from the 1980s, I came across Earnest Jackson, who was a Pro Bowl running back for the Steelers in 1986. He was also a 1,000-yard rusher for the Eagles and Chargers. I see he changed teams after those 1,000-yard seasons. With the focus on running the ball in the 1980s, why was he discarded so quickly?
ANSWER: Earnest Jackson did have two seasons in which he rushed for over 1,000 yards, but his average of 3.9 per carry revealed him to be something of a plodder, a back who wasn't an asset in the passing game and wasn't particularly effective at the goal line. Buddy Ryan, the head coach in Philadelphia when Jackson played for the Eagles, once famously said about him, "Trade him for a six-pack, and it doesn't even have to be cold."
EDDIE SANTIAGO FROM FAJARDO, PUERTO RICO: When the topic of the best free agent signings and/or trades the Steelers made is broached, names such as James Farrior, Jerome Bettis, Mewelde Moore, Jeff Hartings, and Kevin Greene often come up. But can you expand a bit on the contributions of wide receiver Yancey Thigpen? He never gets any mention. When I was stationed overseas in early 1990s, the few Steelers games I got to see (via Armed Forces Network) featured a certain receiver (Thigpen) who would make some incredible catches, was physical, and had a real talent for getting into the open field and running away from the defense. Or was it just a few games that were misleading, and he was not that special?
ANSWER: Yancey Thigpen was the Steelers best receiver in 1995 (85 catches for 1,307 yards and five touchdowns) when the team advanced to Super Bowl XXX, and in 1997 (79 catches for 1,398 yards and seven touchdowns) when the Steelers hosted the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. Thigpen was voted to the Pro Bowl in both of those seasons, but the reason he's never mentioned as one of the best unrestricted free agent signings or trade acquisitions is because the Steelers didn't acquire him in either of those two ways. Thigpen played for the San Diego Chargers in 1991, and when the team lost interest in him the Steelers signed him early in the 1992 season to help on special teams. But because unrestricted free agency didn't kick in until 1993, Thigpen's acquisition didn't fit into that category. In 1998, Thigpen took advantage of unrestricted free agency when he signed a five-year, $21 million contract with the Oilers, which at the time was the highest ever paid to a wide receiver.
DAVID PEPPER FROM LINCS, ENGLAND: Just wanted to wish you and your family a Happy New Year. I've learned so much about football through your writing over many years, and I love it when you give those daft questions exactly what they deserve. Most of all I love your honesty. What will you be wishing for in the New Year?
ANSWER: That we all will get to experience and enjoy a year that's not as dominated by COVID as 2020 and 2021.
PATRICK CHARLES FROM GILLETTE, WY: Do you think the Steelers should trade their first-round draft pick to the 49ers for Jimmy Garoppolo, or go after Jameis Winston, Tyler Huntley, or Marcus Mariota?
ANSWER: No, no, no, and hell no.