Let’s get to it:
JEFF LENARD FROM SAUQUOIT, NY: Of the new players acquired this year, Devin Bush was an excellent draft pick, and Minkah Fitzpatrick was an excellent acquisition via trade. Which free agent signing has had the largest impact on the team to this point in the season?
ANSWER: With Donte Moncrief having been waived, it comes down to Mark Barron or Steven Nelson, and I would give the nod to Nelson. Even though Barron has better individual statistics and has provided the defense with an injection of experience, versatility and athleticism at inside linebacker that has been absent for the past couple of seasons, Nelson has been playing the cornerback spot in a way where opposing quarterbacks have been avoiding his side of the field. There can be no argument that the Steelers pass defense has improved significantly in every category over 2018, and I would contend Nelson’s play at cornerback has been a real factor in that improvement.
TOBY WEISEND FROM WILLIAMSTOWN, WV: If a player is signed to the practice squad and released a day later, how much does he make? Does he have to quit his day job outside of football to make this happen?
ANSWER: When it comes to a situation like this, being on the practice squad for a day is the same as being on the practice squad for a week when it comes to compensation. So in the case of Sutton Smith, who was on the Steelers practice squad for one day last week before being released from the practice squad because the team was short on running backs for practice, he was paid the practice squad weekly minimum of $8,000. And Smith was re-signed to the Steelers practice squad on Nov. 12.
BOB BURTNETT FROM GALLATIN, TN: A few weeks ago, Mason Rudolph threw a pass to James Washington, but the defender hit him before the ball got there and pass interference was called. Is that play ruled a completion by Rudolph and a catch by Washington?
ANSWER: That is ruled no play, so Mason Rudolph doesn’t get credit for an attempt nor a completion, and James Washington is not credited with a catch. The yardage on the pass interference goes under penalty yards.
THOMAS FUDENS FROM MIDDLE ISLAND, NY: For the game Thursday against the Browns, when did the Steelers leave for Cleveland, and how did they travel – by bus or plane?
ANSWER: The NFL requires all visiting teams to be on site the night before the game unless there is some special waiver granted, which means the Steelers left for Cleveland on Wednesday. And for the trip to Cleveland, and only for the trip to Cleveland, the Steelers travel by bus.
MICHAEL CAMPBELL FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: As a fan I love Thursday night games, but I'm guessing the players and coaches hate the short week. How do teams adjust and change their preparation?
ANSWER: Everything is condensed, and the visiting team has it even tougher in that area because it has to travel. For a team that plays on a Sunday and then has a road game on Thursday, players have to be given Monday off to begin the process of physically recovering from 60 minutes of professional football. Tuesday is the only real day of practice, and even that session is more like a glorified walk-through, because, again, the idea is to have players’ bodies as ready as possible for the game. There is another light workout on Wednesday, and then it’s time to travel to the site of the game. To say that preparation has to be condensed and simplified is an understatement.
JC CHUTA FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: JuJu Smith-Schuster and more recently James Washington have been guilty of getting huge yardage, only to get the ball stripped due to a lack of awareness and ball placement. Does Mike Tomlin ever grill his players that ball security is highly mandated?
ANSWER: At his weekly news conference following the win over the Rams, Mike Tomlin wasn’t two minutes into his opening remarks when he said this, “Looking at the game, an area that we’ve got to work on and improve is just our possession of the football. I know sometimes losing a football is just born out of working extremely hard to make plays, particularly in regards to some of the young people, and they can be described as that, but the reasoning is irrelevant. When you’re working in the fashion that we’re working, in terms of missing a number of significant people, particularly in the offensive unit, we’ve got to do good, fundamental things, like take care of the ball. That has been a bug for us. We’ll continue to work in that area, but it’s not like we haven’t placed an emphasis on working that area.”
If Tomlin is making that point unsolicited to the media, I guarantee you he’s making that point to the team. And I have seen drills done regularly during practice where the idea is for running backs and receivers to protect the football from being stripped or punched out of their grasp. Ball security always has been critical for Tomlin, and guys have been benched and/or lost roles because of an inability to hold onto the ball.
JOHN MAIR FROM RIDGE, NY: This is certainly not a knock against Coach Mike Tomlin, who I think deserves to be a contender for the Coach of the Year Award. However, in previous installments of Asked and Answered, you said that fans shouldn't blame the coaches for everything that goes wrong. Does that work the other way as well, for when the team is winning games? Many of the talking heads in the national media are giving Tomlin a lot of credit for the team’s success. I believe the players deserve more recognition for when things go right and wrong.
ANSWER: The talking heads were wrong when the placed all the blame for everything that went wrong on the coaches, just as they’re wrong for giving coaches all of the credit for when things start going right. There are many ways in which a coach can have an impact on a team, either positively or negatively, and the good ones definitely can be a factor in a team’s success. But I often view the coach-player dynamic similar to the teacher-student dynamic. If a student flunks a test, how often is that outcome because he didn’t pay attention in class and then study what was taught vs. a student flunking a test because the teacher did a poor job? On the flip-side, when a student does extremely well, he’s the one who becomes a member of the National Honor Society or Phi Beta Kappa, not the teacher. Certainly there are ways for coaches to have an impact, both positively or negatively, on their teams, but this isn’t a video game. Those players are real human beings, with all of the imperfections human beings have, out on the field or the court, and coaches only have so much of an impact, especially when the athletes/performers are professionals.
It reminds me of the summer at training camp when Chuck Noll was asked to be a guest conductor when the Pittsburgh Symphony visited Saint Vincent College for an evening performance outdoors. Noll was hesitant, but someone associated with the Symphony explained to him that all a conductor really has to do is get the musicians started and then they effectively take over from there. Noll looked at the man and said, “That sounds a lot like my job.”