Let's get to it:
RICKY SMITH FROM PENSACOLA, FL: I've been a Steelers fan for 50-plus years, and I THOUGHT I had a pretty decent grasp of the rulebook basics. Obviously I was wrong, and I have no clue what the rule for a touchback is. Could you please explain why the punt that put the Steelers at their 1-yard line was not brought out to the 20-yard line when the cover man obviously touched a live ball with his hand in the end zone? And was the spotting of the ball not explained to Coach Mike Tomlin before he challenged?
ANSWER: Don't be so hard on yourself, because after I did some research I found that what you thought should've happened actually is what should've happened. As it was explained to me, a player on the kicking team must have possession of the ball and two feet inbounds in order for the punt to be considered downed at the spot. In that sense, it's very much like a completed catch. On the play in question, Browns tight end Stephen Carlson was ruled by the on-field official not to have had possession of the ball, and so it then became a matter of whether the ball crossed the goal line for a touchback, or whether part of his body was across the goal line when another part of his body contacted the ball, which also would be a touchback. When Coach Mike Tomlin was told that the on-field official had ruled no possession by Carlson, that's when Tomlin decided to challenge the call. Then when New York got involved during the review process, whomever was looking at the video at the league office decided that Carlson did establish possession, put the ball at the 1-yard line, and docked the Steelers a timeout and a challenge. That's not how it's supposed to work. If the on-field officials make a ruling that leads to an allowable challenge, then the team cannot lose the challenge because New York decides its on-field officials screwed up the original ruling. It's the same thing as forward progress being stopped or a pass being ruled uncatchable – those rulings take precedence over whatever happens afterwards. Based on what the on-field officials ruled, it should've been a touchback, but that's not how it turned out. Welcome to the NFL.
JIM NEAL FROM FAYETTEVILLE, AR: Can you give us any update on the health status of JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner? I thought they were limited in practice last week. Do you think the coaches are just letting them rest and holding them back until the Bills game, or do you think they will play this week against the Cardinals to get ready for the Bills?
ANSWER: First, let's begin with what I know: At his Tuesday news conference, Coach Mike Tomlin said this about the injury situation: ""If you look at us from a health standpoint, we're getting better in that area. The two significant ones, the ones where we don't have a lot of clarity are James Conner (shoulder) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee). I'd probably characterize both guys as questionable as I stand here today. They have some work in front of them in terms of rehabilitation and maybe practice participation. And we'll see where all of that leads. I really just don't have an indication of what that might be as I stand here today. I saw both guys down in the training room (on Monday) working and working hard. We'll see what the practice availability looks like. Conner probably has a better chance of practicing in some capacity (on Wednesday) than JuJu. But again, we'll take it day-by-day and see where it leads us."
Yesterday (Wednesday) was the first day of practice in the team's preparation for the game against Arizona, and Smith-Schuster did not participate, while Conner was a limited participant. My guess, and I emphasize that this is nothing more than a guess, is that if Smith-Schuster doesn't practice today (Thursday), then he's unlikely to play against the Cardinals, and that if Conner doesn't move from a limited participant to a full participant, then he's also unlikely to play against the Cardinals. There is one other thing I know, and that is Tomlin isn't the kind of coach who saves a player who's cleared to play because he wants him to be extra ready for the following opponent. If Smith-Schuster and/or Conner can play against the Cardinals, they won't be held out because the next game is against the Bills.
BILL JANUS FROM HAINESPORT, NJ: I remember seeing somewhere that Antonio Brown counts $21 million against the Steelers salary cap this year. Does this money come off next year, and can that be used to sign Bud Dupree or Javon Hargrave?
ANSWER: Yes, the trade of Antonio Brown resulted in the Steelers being hit with a $21 million charge to their 2019 salary cap, and after this season is over Brown will be off the books totally. So in that sense, the Steelers will have that money to spend, but it's not as if it's a windfall where it could be considered "extra" money. And I caution fans who are thinking this way, because there are a lot of players with existing contracts whose cap numbers will increase in 2020 based on the way their contracts are written. As an example, Ben Roethlisberger carried a $26.2 million cap number in 2019, and in 2020 it will be $33.5 million. So to believe the Steelers have an extra $21 million to sign Bud Dupree and Javon Hargrave isn't really true.
ADAM STATTI FROM CAPE CORAL, FL: Before the regular season started, was there ever any serious consideration given to having Devlin Hodges be the No. 2 quarterback behind Ben Roethlisberger?
ANSWER: Based on the fact that Devlin Hodges was among the players waived when the Steelers cut their roster to 53 players after the fourth preseason game, I would say the answer to that is a no.
CHRIS TROMBETTA FROM MURRYSVILLE, PA: No question. I've been a football fan for 50 years, and I found your answer about how a referee spots a punt that goes out of bounds utterly fascinating (I do need to get out more often). But I never knew that, and you taught me something. I was literally fascinated by it.
ANSWER: Happy to be of service. And if you ever get an opportunity to be in a stadium and see that happen live, you'll realize that based on the angle the referee has from standing behind the punter makes it the best way to handle the situation.
CANDY ORLY FROM NAPLES, FL: I'm glad to see you repeatedly point out that instant replay does not work as an officiating tool. Do you think the NFL will ever abandon it, and if so, how far away are they from doing so?
ANSWER: I don't believe the NFL ever will return to the prehistoric era of having on-site officials make the calls in real time and then the teams and players live with them. We are way too far down the rabbit hole for that. In fact, if anything, I see more and more layers of replay added in a fruitless attempt to make the game perfectly officiated. Which will never happen. That's what I believe happened with the addition of offensive and defensive pass interference being added to what's now reviewable. And that has been a disaster.
RUBE GINDER FROM EAST PALESTINE OH: I know Minkah Fitzpatrick is in the second year of his rookie contract. Can you give me the contract status of Stephen Nelson and Mark Barron?
ANSWER: When Mark Barron was released by the Los Angeles Rams, he signed a two-year contract with the Steelers, and so he's bound to the team through the 2020 season. Stephen Nelson signed a three-year contract as an unrestricted free agent, and so he's bound to the Steelers through the 2021 season.