Let's get to it:
JOHN BROWNING FROM WHITEVILLE, NC: Much of the Steelers success hinges on the offensive and defensive lines. How many of the current starters on both groups are under long-term contracts (three or more years)?
ANSWER: For the purposes of your question, I am considering the starters on the defensive line to be Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave, and Stephon Tuitt; and the starters on the offensive line to be Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Matt Feiler. The only one of those players to be under contract for the next three years is Tuitt, who is bound to the team through the 2022 season.
MICHAEL CAMPBELL FROM DANVILLE, PA: Before the season started I told my non-Steelers friends that it didn't matter who was in the backfield because the offensive line is so good the Steelers can run the ball against anyone. What happened?
ANSWER: We can start with the simple fact that your assessment is incorrect. Running the football is an 11-man operation, with the wide receivers' work on the perimeter being just as important to a successful running attack as what the five offensive linemen do. Also a factor is whether the offense is able to threaten a defense with its passing attack, because if that isn't the case, I don't care if it's Jim Brown running behind five All-Pro offensive linemen, a defense can stop the run if it doesn't have to worry about anything but stopping the run. In addition to those things, there were injuries to James Conner and Rosie Nix, injuries to Vance McDonald and a general situation at tight end where the Steelers were adding Nick Vannett via trade after the season started. Oh, and there was that season-ending injury to Ben Roethlisberger, which had to be a considerable relief to every defensive coordinator on the Steelers schedule.
HOMER KIMBRELL FROM CINCINNATI, OH: With Pittsburgh taking the hit this season with Antonio Brown's dead money, how does that cash not become available for the team to spend in the offseason? I see that they are only projected to have around $6 million available on their 2020 salary cap.
ANSWER: The dead money from Antonio Brown's contract does come off the Steelers salary cap for 2020, but that doesn't mean it isn't spoken for in the form of raises or bonuses that were written into other players' contracts. The concept of there being a pile of money that's magically available is just not the way it works.
KEN LAUGHERY FROM PONTOTOC, MS: On several occasions during the course of this season, I've seen the Steelers literally give away opportunities on offense in the form of taking a knee to let the clock expire at the end of the half. In the Baltimore game, for example, we had the ball on our 25-yard line following a touchback on a kickoff, with three timeouts and trailing by six points, and the clock was stopped with 15 seconds left. Why in the world would we not at least try a play in that situation? Is it lack of confidence by the coaches?
ANSWER: This has to be a joke, right? Your idea is that it would be sound tactics to try to move at least 40 yards – which is the minimum necessary to get into position to attempt a 53-yard field goal in driving rain – in less than 15 seconds with a free agent rookie at quarterback, with a rookie and a second-year pro at wide receiver, and with a rookie at running back, or at best a second-year pro at running back. Which do you think is more likely – that an offense with this personnel could pull it off, or that some disaster might happen to turn a six-point deficit into a larger one? And remember, it wasn't at the end of the game when this occurred, but at the end of a first half with the Steelers due to receive the second-half kickoff.
SUNIL GEORGE FROM PRINCETON, NJ: The Steelers should focus on offense in the 2020 draft. They need running backs and quarterbacks. Since the Steelers don't have a first round pick in the 2020 draft, what are the chances of finding a power running back who can elevate their running game? What are the chances of the Steelers bringing in a quality veteran backup quarterback?
ANSWER: It's possible the Steelers could address the running back position in the upcoming draft, but I don't know that it will be necessary to spend a second-round pick on one. And as I already have written many times, I predict the quarterbacks the Steelers will carry into the 2020 season will be three of the four they already have under contract. Those four are Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, and Paxton Lynch.
MIKE MARIC FROM VERNON, BC, CANADA: It was clear that the offense lacked playmakers and quality play from the backup quarterbacks. I can see selecting a skill position with the second-round pick and perhaps upgrading at backup quarterback with all of the pending free agents this offseason. Can you see the Steelers going after someone like Marcus Mariota in free agency?
ANSWER: Let me begin with this: I believe your expectation for the caliber of play an NFL team can expect from a backup quarterback is way too high. In games started by Mason Rudolph, the Steelers were 5-3, and in games started by Devlin Hodges, they were 3-3. I'm not going to make the claim that an 8-6 record (.571) is the best winning percentage in the NFL for teams playing backup quarterbacks in 2019, but I can tell you definitively that personnel people in the league would take that winning percentage in a heartbeat. Now, what makes a guy who was on his team's books for $20.9 million this season and lost his job to Ryan Tannehill so attractive? That, of course, describes Marcus Mariota. The Steelers have no cap room to spend a significant amount of money on a backup quarterback. And another thing you should realize is that a lot of the veteran quarterbacks who may be hitting the open market come March very well may be looking for a situation where they could compete for the starting job, and that's not going to be the case in Pittsburgh.
PAUL SENUITA FROM PRINCE RUPERT, BC, CANADA: Trick play question: If the quarterback throws a forward pass behind the line of scrimmage to a running back and then the running back pitches it back to the quarterback who then throws a completed pass to a wide receiver, does that count as two completions for the quarterback?
ANSWER: The category in which that play will count is in penalty yardage, because it's illegal to throw two forward passes on one play. Just because the first pass from the quarterback to the running back is behind the line of scrimmage, if the pass is forward then that's the only forward pass allowed on that play. Maybe Canadian Football League rules are different, but in the NFL that would draw a penalty flag.
REN MANETTI FROM LANCASTER, CA: The Ravens and the Bengals already have started signing players to extensions. It seems the Steelers start negotiations far later. Why is that?
ANSWER: That's because the Steelers have an organizational philosophy not to negotiate contracts during the season. A long-standing organizational philosophy, by the way.