Let's get to it:
MICHAEL ROBERTS FROM ELIZABETHTOWN, KY: Is there a particular player you're interested in seeing his growth from last year? And perhaps a position battle that interests you?
ANSWER: Actually, my answer to your two questions go hand-in-hand. The player is James Pierre, and the position battle is how the cornerback situation ends up playing out.
Pierre was the only undrafted rookie to earn a spot on the 53-man roster in 2020, and at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds he has intriguing size for the position. Pierre was active for all 16 regular season games and played mostly on special teams, but toward the end of his rookie year it appeared as though he had vaulted Justin Layne for an outside cornerback spot in some of the situational package defenses. Last season Pierre finished third on the team in total special teams tackles with nine, behind Justin Layne (12) and Jordan Dangerfield (10). And Pierre accomplished all of that as a rookie with no offseason program or preseason, both of which were cancelled because of COVID.
So far in this small sample size of training camp, plus what we were able to see during OTAs and minicamp, Pierre has made some plays, gotten his hands on the ball, gotten beat for touchdowns. As Coach Mike Tomlin put it after Friday's practice, "Guys have made some plays, guys have missed some plays, that's just part of this process. We'll keep rolling that ball out, and we'll gain clarity as we continue to do that."
Pierre's development is also tied into the competition to replace Mike Hilton as the slot cornerback, Because as senior defensive assistant /secondary coach Teryl Austin explained, the idea is to get the five best defensive back on the field together. That means if Pierre ends the preseason having played significantly better than any of the candidates competing for the slot cornerback spot, it's possible the Steelers would respond to that by having Pierre start at right cornerback and move Cam Sutton inside to take over the slot position.
"That scenario is always there, because we want to put our best guys on the field," said Austin. "Right now what we're working with is we know Cam can play nickel, but he's playing outside now as a starter. We don't know what we have inside at nickel, so we want to make sure of what we have there. And we know if James Pierre really has an outstanding camp, or if Justin Layne, who has been doing well, continues to do well – if those guys play lights out in the preseason – whoever the five best are, those are the guys we want on the field."
KHARI CLEMMONS FROM McALPIN, FL: Terminology help here: Are the terms "nickel corner" and "slot corner" synonyms for the same position/responsibility? If not, what are differences between the two?
ANSWER: Generally, those terms are synonymous. One situation in which they would be different is this: the nickel corner is the guy who comes onto the field when the defense deploys in its nickel alignment (five defensive backs), which typically includes three cornerbacks. It may be that the coaches could take the cornerback who comes onto the field for the nickel formation – therefore, the nickel cornerback – and align him on the outside and move one of the starting cornerback into the slot, therefore turning him into a slot cornerback, if only for that play. To summarize, the nickel cornerback is the guy who comes onto the field when the defense aligns with five defensive backs; the slot cornerback is the guy who lines up over the slot receiver.
ROD KEEFER FROM EDMOND, OK: Congratulations and best wishes to Vince Williams on his retirement. If Robert Spillane ends up as the starter alongside Devin Bush at inside linebacker, who do you see as most likely being the key backup(s) there?
ANSWER: Pending the outcome of training camp and the preseason, a few of the obvious candidates would be Ulysees Gilbert, rookie Buddy Johnson, and Marcus Allen.
MARK SMITH FROM MESA, AZ: With the retirement of Vince Williams, shouldn't the Steelers at least give a look to a veteran inside linebacker like Sean Lee or K.J. Wright, if healthy of course, but someone who is at least slightly better than average in coverage?
ANSWER: I don't know how long you've been a Steelers fan, but this notion that every time a player is cut or retires the team should respond by signing a veteran free agent is just not how its likes to do business. By the way, Sean Lee retired months ago, and K.J. Wright is looking for a big-money contract. The Steelers cut Vince Williams because of salary cap constraints in the first place. See the above answer for where I believe the team will begin its search for a replacement for Williams.
SPENCER JOHNSTON FROM MURFREESBORO, TN: Whatever happened to the joint training camp practices like we did with the Bills a few years ago? Was that a casualty of COVID, or has that stopped for other reasons? Was it beneficial to train against another opponent, or do you feel it's more beneficial to focus inward until preseason?
ANSWER: There were no joint practices during the 2020 preseason because of COVID, and with many of the same protocols in place I don't know that any teams will be interested in jumping through all of the necessary hoops to make it happen in 2021. Joint practices often devolve into an endless series of fights during practice, and so typically they're no longer scheduled unless the respective head coaches have a close relationship, and a level of trust exists between the two so that there's a level of confidence there were will be a professionalism shown by the teams on the practice field. Also, proximity is an issue, because a team typically isn't interested in getting on an airplane and moving a 90-man roster across the country for a couple of training camp practices.
CHRIS WELBURN FROM GLASTONBURY, CT: I thought we'd wait until the mass cutdown days to find any final roster pieces who could be better. Would you agree that the talent available is typically better at that time? Is the value of having someone in at the start of training camp more valuable than the potential difference in talent?
ANSWER: It would make sense to assume that players who are on a 90-man roster for the start of a team's training camp are better than a player who is not, but there could be extenuating circumstances, such as recovery from an injury. But the flip side of that is it's certainly beneficial to have a player who has had the advantage of going through a whole training camp with a team, because then he has a better understanding of schemes and the coaches have a better understanding of his skill-set. Overall, if a personnel department identifies a serviceable player who's available and fortifies the roster at a position needing that, it's wise to add him when he's available. If a better guy then comes along, it costs nothing to switch them out. But remember, one of the risks associated with waiting for final cuts to add a guy is that if a player is placed on waivers, there is the possibility he could be claimed by a team with a higher waiver priority.
NICK MITCHELL FROM GLEN-LYON, PA: I saw the question in a previous installment of Asked and Answered about Three Rivers Stadium, which leads me to this: Who owned the cars that were parked near the field during the games back then?
ANSWER: At the time, the Steelers had a marketing deal with Chrysler-Plymouth, and the cars parked close to the field on game days were there to showcase some of the latest models to the fans in attendance.
ALONSO GOMEZ FROM PUEBLA, MEXICO: Due to the increased rate of COVID cases, is there any danger of reducing the capacity for home games, and if so when they will announce it?
ANSWER: As of right now, the Steelers are planning on having Heinz Field at full capacity for home games during the 2021 preseason and regular season. If something changes, it would be announced at that time.
PAUL AURIGEMMA FROM TOMS RIVER, NJ: Does the NFL deem any difference between a vaccinated player testing positive for COVID and a non-vaccinated player testing positive for COVID as far as their game status?
ANSWER: The following appeared on NFL.com on Thursday, July 23: "NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported Thursday that the NFL sent a memo to its clubs stating that if a game cannot be rescheduled during the 18-week schedule due to a COVID-19 outbreak among unvaccinated players, the team with the outbreak will forfeit and be credited with a loss, per sources informed of the situation. In addition, players on both teams will not be paid for the lost contest, and the team responsible for the cancelled game due to unvaccinated players will cover financial losses and be subject to potential discipline from the Commissioner's office."
KURT CARMEL FROM LUTHERVILLE MD: Does the retirement of Vince Williams have any salary cap implications? Is there any salary obligation to the player since the official NFL season is already underway?
ANSWER: The NFL season is not underway, and it won't be until rosters are cut from 90 players to 53 on Tuesday, Aug. 31 at 4 p.m. EDT. Players do not start receiving checks based on their contracts until the regular season begins. Anyway, Vince Williams' retirement will save the Steelers the $850,000 he was to count on their salary cap in 2021, but that number will be mitigated by having to replace Williams on the active roster, and the minimum salary in 2021 is $660,000. Right now, only the top 51 salaries count on each team's salary cap, but come 4 p.m. on Aug. 31, all 53 players on the roster will count toward each team's cap.
DENNIS NEVINSKY FROM ERIE, PA: If Christian Darrisaw slipped to the Steelers in the draft, do you think they would have taken him?
ANSWER: Seriously? Are we still beating this dead horse?
RICK DELGADO FROM SACRAMENTO, CA: Do you think the Rooneys will entertain the idea of placing another Steelers logo on the other side of the helmet? With today's fancy uniforms and designs, maybe it's time to add another logo on the other side of the helmet.
ANSWER: Fancy uniforms and designs? You're certainly not referring to the Packers', or maybe the Bears', or the Giants', or the Cowboys'. How about the Colts'? Maybe it's time for you to learn to respect history and tradition.