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Asked and Answered

Asked and Answered: Jan. 12

Let's get to it:

Supposedly, Demarcus Ayers was drafted to return kicks. Now that he has made the active roster as a receiver, why not let him? Surely, he cannot do any worse.

ANSWER: Demarcus Ayers was a seventh-round pick in 2016, and he was seen as a slot receiver on offense and a potential punt returner. After the pick was made on April 30, Danny Smith told the assembled media that Ayers had been rated the No. 1 punt returner available in the draft by the Steelers. "We have a list that consisted of combination guys, that's what we call them," said Smith at the time. "It consists of kick (return) guys, punt (return) guys; we got kick returners and punt returners. We had him listed as a No. 1 punt returner."

In college, Ayers returned kickoffs as a freshman in 2013, and he had a 17.6 yard average. As a junior – his final season in college – Ayers returned only punts and had a 10.5 average and one touchdown. Ayers has no chance to replace Antonio Brown as a punt returner now, because the Steelers are looking for big plays at this stage of the playoffs, and Brown is a proven commodity as an NFL punt returner. In terms of kickoffs, as just mentioned, Ayers hasn't done it since 2013, and I don't believe Coach Mike Tomlin would turn to someone with no NFL experience returning kickoffs and have him do it in a Divisional Round Game on the road.

Is the absence of Robert Golden, Robert Golden, and Vince Williams on special teams really that noticeable? You'll only get away with poor special teams play for so long.

ANSWER: Last year, Vince Williams led the Steelers in special teams tackles, and Shamarko Thomas was second, one tackle behind Williams. Robert Golden has been voted special teams captain by his teammates multiple times. Yes, it's that noticeable, and you are correct about poor special teams play eventually biting you in the butt. I sat through the 2001 AFC Championship Game, so I saw that play out first-hand.

Now that it is the playoffs, what is the practice schedule like? Is it different than the regular season? How does it change if there are six days between the game versus seven?

ANSWER: This is what Mike Tomlin had to say about practice sessions during the playoffs: "It's very similar structurally to a practice at any point during a season, but there's a pace and an edge to it that you cannot simulate. And it's because of the urgency of the moment. Guys respect the urgency of the moment by pace, and it's funny, you can do the same things you were doing two months ago and you're off the field 11, 12 minutes sooner. It's just the pace of the process, it's the repetition of the process. I think that we perfect the practicing process over the course of the season. I always look at my watch when we walk off the field, and it's reflected there. In September it's a certain time. In October, it's a couple of minutes off that time. In November, in December, over the course of the season we do the same things, but we do them in a quicker, more efficient fashion."

And since the Steelers first two games of these playoffs were scheduled for Sundays at 1 p.m., and the AFC Championship Game is scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 22, there will be no shorts weeks for them.

It looked like the stadium was half empty for the Dolphins game. Did cold weather really stop people attending a Steelers home playoff game? Of course, it is easy to judge sitting in my cozy Floridian lounge room.

ANSWER: The official NFL recording of the weather at kickoff had it at 17-degrees, with wind from the west at 16 mph. That made the wind chill 2-degrees, and on the local newscasts that weekend, people were being warned that frostbite could set in as quickly as 35 minutes on any exposed skin. Still there were 62,726 fans in attendance, and that's turnstile count and not ticket sales. I cannot say when the network broadcast showed the stands, but when the game was being played, there were not a lot of empty seats. And don't forget, there are a lot of Club Seats at Heinz Field, and those ticketholders have access to indoor lounges, and there was a lot of going in there occasionally to grab some warmth, I'm sure.

What is the contract situation with Ryan Shazier? He has now proven to be a great selection and is a better player than C.J. Mosley. He is truly a difference maker.

ANSWER: Ryan Shazier is under contract through the end of the 2017 season based on the four-year deal he signed as a No. 1 pick after the 2014 NFL Draft. As a first-round pick, Shazier also is subjected to a fifth-year option at the Steelers' discretion. The rookie wage scale, created in 2011, requires all first-year players to sign four-year deals. Teams then have the option to exercise a fifth-year option for all first-round picks. The fifth year (2018 for those taken in the 2014 draft) is guaranteed for injury.

The fifth-year salary varies depending on how high the player was drafted. The top 10 selections in the first round receive a salary equal to the average of the 10 highest salaries at their position. For the remainder of the first round, the wage is the average of the third through 25th highest salaries at the position. The Steelers will have to make a decision on Shazier's fifth-year option some time in 2017, usually close to May.

I love the new color rush jerseys, but I can't find one for William Gay. He is my favorite player, but I can only find Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, and Cam Heyward so far. My question is will the NFL produce a color rush jersey available in other players' names for fans to buy?

ANSWER: It's not the NFL that produces color rush jerseys, but Nike. In the first year of Steelers color rush, Nike did not offer a James Harrison version.

It's hard to win on the road because of the crowd noise disturbing the quarterback, but don't you think that are more important factors involved? Things like hotel accommodations or even different food? Which aspects of traveling do you identify as most worthy of respect or attention?

ANSWER: It's not so much that the noise disturbs the quarterback, but the noise prevents the offensive unit as a whole from communicating, and it prevents the offensive linemen from hearing the snap count, which slows their get-off at the start of every play. I can tell you that the hotel accommodations never are an issue, because the rooms are lush, and in fact I have lived in apartments during my life that were smaller than some of the hotel rooms I have had on road trips. The food is made to order and plentiful, and the travel is by charter airplane, which is on the other end of the spectrum from flying commercial.

If the Steelers were to win in the Divisional Round and the Texans were to win, too, would the AFC Championship Game be at Heinz Field?


If the Steelers place the franchise tag on Le'Veon Bell next season, what are the options available to the player? I assume he does not have to sign the deal. Would that make him an unrestricted free agent? I hope it's a moot point and the team can come to terms with Bell on his second contract.

ANSWER: Players who get the franchise tag still may negotiate with other teams, but the initial team gets a chance to match any offer, and if the initial team choose not to match, the offering team must surrender its next two No. 1 draft picks as compensation. If the player chooses not to sign the franchise tender and receives no other offers from other teams, he plays for nobody.

With the Steelers continuing to win is it possible that we will see the color rush uniforms again? I'm a little biased but I think we had the best color rush uniforms across the league.

ANSWER: Color rush is done for the Steelers this season. Look for them again some time in 2017.

Is James Harrison's interception return the longest lasting play, from snap to whistle, in Super Bowl history?

ANSWER: How in the wide, wide world of sports could I know that? And why in the wide, wide world of sports do you care?

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