Bob Labriola is currently away on vacation. Below are some notable submissions – and Bob’s answers – from the 2019 offseason.
SCOTT MUELLER FROM BUXTON, NC: Who is the greatest left tackle in Steelers history?
ANSWER: Even though the franchise is very well-represented in Canton – only the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers have more primary people enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – the only offensive linemen among the Steelers’ contingent are centers Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson. Even when it comes to being voted to the Pro Bowl, the Steelers have been represented in that game by three left tackles in franchise history – Charley Bradshaw was voted to two, Marvel Smith was voted to one, and Al Villanueva was voted to two. But my answer to this question would be Jon Kolb, a player never even voted to a single Pro Bowl.
A third-round pick in the same 1969 NFL Draft that brought Joe Greene to the Steelers in the first round, Kolb played 13 seasons for the team, all at left tackle. He appeared in 177 regular season games, with 138 starts, and he also started 16 playoff games during which the Steelers compiled a 12-4 record and won four Super Bowls. In those Super Bowls, Kolb was assigned Vikings defense end Jim Marshall, Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin twice, and Rams defensive end Fred Dryer. . Against the Vikings, the Steelers rushed for 249 yards and averaged 4.4 per attempt; in Super Bowl XIII against the famous Cowboys pass rush, Terry Bradshaw passed for 318 yards and four touchdowns; and in Super Bowl XIV against the Rams, Bradshaw passed for 309 yards and two touchdowns.
Recognition is nice, but results are most important, and Kolb played a critical position on a team that won a lot of games and four championships, first by employing a run-first offense that won two of those four, and then morphing into a prolific passing attack to win two more.
GENARO VAN DER MAAL FROM EAGLE PASS, TX: Do Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph practice with the first offense before and during the season in case they need to step in for Ben Roethlisberger?
ANSWER: Periodically during training camp, and typically on Wednesdays during the regular season, Ben Roethlisberger is given a day off with the dual purpose of resting his arm/elbow and allowing Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph the opportunity for additional on-field repetitions.
The value of keeping Roethlisberger fresh over the long grind of an NFL season shouldn’t have to be explained to anyone, but apparently there are still some fans who need to be reminded that flesh and bone isn’t an indestructible combination. Should something happen to a team’s starting quarterback, it’s important that the backup has had time in practice, and it’s also important that the backup has had time in practice with the people with whom he’s going to have to be on the field executing the offense.
BRIAN GRABBATIN FROM COLUMBIA, SC: In a previous Asked and Answered, you mentioned Jaylen Samuels’ ability to play H-back. Can you explain the role of this position and give us some insight into how the Steelers have used H-backs in the past?
ANSWER: Sometimes H-backs are described as move-tight-ends, and all that means is a tight end who has the ability to perform the blocking and receiving required of his position on the move instead of lining up in the more traditional spot at one end of the line of scrimmage. H-backs typically begin aligned in the backfield, and then they might go in motion to one side of the formation or the other, and from there they can serve as a lead blocker or have a running start on getting out of the backfield and into the pass pattern. The Steelers never really have been a team that employs an H-back on a fulltime basis, but they occasionally will align tight ends in the backfield and utilize them as H-backs. Since Jaylen Samuels has some experience at this from his college days at North Carolina State, and because he is a decent receiver and evolving blocker it seemed logical to me that he could be utilized some in that way.
ANDREW CLAY FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: I'm a fan of kickoff returns. Those plays used to be exciting to watch and could swing momentum/outcomes of a game. Will it ever come back to the way it was? And statistically, does it really cut down on injuries all that much?
ANSWER: According to a story in The Washington Post that appeared on March 1, 2019, there were 13 concussions sustained by players on kickoffs during the 2018 season, which was down from the 20 concussions sustained on kickoffs in 2017. That represented a reduction of 35 percent from one year to the next, and that prompted Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of health and safety to admit, “It seemed to have the result that the competition committee wanted.” Applying these statistics and feedback to your questions, the answers would seem to be that kickoffs never will be going back to the way they used to be, because the league believes the reduction in the number of concussions is worth the rules changes.
TODD FURST FROM ALLENTOWN, PA: I've read good quotes from the Steelers top three running backs commenting on formations that have James Connor and Jaylen Samuels in the backfield together. Have any Steelers coaches commented on the running back by committee approach?
ANSWER: This seems to be an annual rite of spring, that being talk about the Steelers employing more of a two-back system in the upcoming season, and then fans getting excited about it. But what we also have come to learn is that once the season starts, the Steelers primarily revert to the procedure they’ve used since Bill Cowher was hired in 1992, that being the concept of one man being the primary ball carrier. The fact Jaylen Samuels can serve as an H-back does offer an opportunity for the Steelers to utilize formations with him lining up in the backfield, but if fans believe this is the precursor to the Steelers returning to the days of a split-backfield, a la Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, that’s not going to happen. At least not as a primary offensive formation.
BILLY THOMAS FROM MERCER, PA: I’ve read a few articles talking about Steven Nelson being signed to the biggest free agent contract in Steelers history at $25.5 million over three years. Am I missing something, because didn’t Joe Haden sign a three-year deal worth $27 million?
ANSWER: The two players you reference are in two completely different categories. Steven Nelson was an unrestricted free agent when he signed that three-year contract with the Steelers, while Joe Haden had been cut by the Browns before signing his contract. If the people who wrote those stories were being thorough, they would have made the distinction because it is a significant one. As just one example of the significance of the distinction, the signing of Steven Nelson will be considered when the NFL gets around to determining the Steelers’ compensatory draft picks for 2020, but the signing of Joe Haden did not count in that formula for 2018.
OHN MAIR FROM RIDGE, NY: Is it true that Steelers head coach Bill Cowher wanted to take an offensive lineman in the 2004 NFL Draft instead of Ben Roethlisberger?
ANSWER: Yes. That player was Shawn Andrews, and he was a right tackle from Arkansas.
ESTHER PATTON FROM CINCINNATI, OH: Wasn't Bill Nunn instrumental in selecting players from HBCUs such as Joe Greene, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth?
ANSWER: Bill Nunn most certainly was instrumental in scouting the talent the Steelers drafted from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but North Texas State, where Joe Greene played his college football, wasn’t a part of the HBCU. The HBCUs in Texas are: Prairie View A&M University, Texas Southern University, Texas Southern University – Thurgood Marshall School of Law, St. Philip’s College, Huston-Tillotson University, Jarvis Christian College, Paul Quinn College, Southwestern Christian College, Texas College, and Wiley College.
ANCE CONTRUCCI FROM NEW YORK, NY: Your assertion that Jack Lambert was not as vital to the 1970s Steelers as Joe Greene (April 30 Asked and Answered) is dubious. Lambert averaged 146 tackles a year from 1974 to 1983 and had 28 career interceptions. While Joe Greene was inarguably one of the best ever, his performance dropped off significantly due to injury in 1976. A case could definitely be made that Lambert was the more dominant force during their Super Bowl years.
ANSWER: You can make any case you like, but you would be wrong. One of the reasons Jack Lambert had all those tackles was because of Joe Greene occupying multiple offensive linemen to keep the middle linebacker clean and able to roam freely and find the ball carrier. Lambert was able to play in the middle of the field and be highly productive even though he typically weighed less than 220 pounds. Why do you think that was? Also, Greene was the guy who changed the culture within the Steelers franchise. Changed. The. Culture. Thirty-seven seasons of losing only began to change with the drafting of Greene. Lambert was a great, great player. No argument there, but he wasn’t even the best linebacker on those 1970s Steelers teams. Jack Ham was. When Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II decided to retire Greene’s No. 75, Ham, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, Mel Blount – all great players in their own rights – said publicly that it was fitting No. 75 was the first jersey to be retired from among the Hall of Fame players from the 1970s because Greene was the best of them all. I believe they know what they’re talking about, beyond simply reciting statistics.
BILLY FENIMORE FROM TROY, OH: I have read in multiple places that Joe Greene is the last surviving member of The Steel Curtain. Was Jack Lambert not part of the legendary Steel Curtain? I believe he is still very much alive and in my opinion, Jack Lambert was every bit as vital to the success of the Steelers as Joe Greene.
ANSWER: The origin of the nickname, The Steel Curtain, referred only to the defensive front four, just as was the case with the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome, and the Minnesota Vikings’ Purple People Eaters. The Steel Curtain was made up of Dwight While, Ernie Holmes, Joe Greene, and L.C. Greenwood. Those were the four players who graced the cover of Time Magazine, and that nickname referred specifically to that unit and those four players. Over time, The Steel Curtain came to be associated with the entire defensive unit, possibly as a counter to Dallas’ Doomsday Defense, but its initial reference was to the four-man defensive line. And with all due respect to Jack Lambert, a Hall of Fame player in his own right, your opinion of his significance vs. Joe Greene’s to the Steelers of the 1970s is incorrect.