Asked and Answered

Asked and Answered: Nov. 5

Let's get to it:

BOBBY BOONE FROM STRYKER, MT: I have seen outside linebacker Alex Highsmith spread out wide often to cover running backs or tight ends (and Bud Dupree as well). Is this a common alignment for the defense, or is this an adjustment due to the loss of Devin Bush?
ANSWER: Having outside linebackers in coverage long has been a staple of the Steelers defensive philosophy – Kurt Warner still whines about James Harrison being where "he wasn't supposed to be" at the end of the first half of Super Bowl XLIII. Looking for outside linebackers with coverage skills adds to the difficulty for the Steelers to find these kinds of players in the draft because colleges don't develop those kinds of dual-responsibility players, and it's also why drafted candidates to play outside linebacker for the Steelers often need time to develop, with Bud Dupree a recent of example of that. An example of the ways different teams utilize their edge players is Cleveland, with Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, and the Steelers, with T.J. Watt and Dupree. Before the Steelers-Browns game on Oct. 18, I asked Coach Mike Tomlin whether Vernon and Garrett were comparable to Watt and Dupree. Tomlin said, "They work in a different way. I would not trade my duo for that duo because there are so many drop responsibilities within our system, and our guys are built for what we ask our guys to do, and those guys are built for the 4-3 system and built to deliver what they ask them to do."

RANDY STEGENGA FROM STOW, OH: In the Baltimore game Lamar Jackson went to hand the ball off in their read-option, but he ended up keeping the ball. If I remember correctly, Bud Dupree tackled him behind the line of scrimmage. Is this considered a sack or is Jackson now considered as a running back since he kept the ball?
ANSWER: It's a running play, and Bud Dupree is credited with a tackle for loss.

DAN ARMITAGE FROM RIVERVIEW, NB, CANADA: Before the season there was a lot of chatter about James Conner being and staying healthy for us. So with the next three games against struggling teams, can we expect to give Conner fewer touches to help keep him healthier for the latter part of the season?
ANSWER: Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. If that would happen and the Steelers lose in Dallas, you would be one of the first to rip the Steelers and Coach Mike Tomlin for "losing to a team they should beat." The next three teams on the schedule are not JV teams, and this is not the preseason.

KEN MAULDIN FROM ABILENE, TX: I'm all for getting more depth, but it's hard to imagine Robert Spillane being outplayed by Avery Williamson in the near future. You mentioned Avery Williamson is not a Pro Bowl-caliber player. If that is the case, are you seeing something in Spillane that says he should be removed from his starting role?
ANSWER: Robert Spillane is young and inexperienced, and the problem with young and inexperienced players is that they make mistakes in games. Having an alternative is wise, especially when a team sees itself as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and I believe the last three wins of this 7-0 start prove the Steelers are that. Mike Tomlin always says this, and it's something fans should remember as they try to understand the thinking behind this move: "The strength of the pack is the pack." It's always better to have more people to do a job than it is to have fewer, as long as everybody is pulling in the same direction. They know Spillane is a team guy, and rescuing Williamson from the Jets and putting him on a championship contender should make him feel like he was reborn. Make no mistake, I would rather have a healthy Devin Bush, but that's not reality in 2020.

TONY TURAY FROM SASKATOON, SASKATCHEWAN, CANADA: Is there a difference in the cap hit to a team depending on whether it trades a player or releases him? Example: What is the Jets' cap hit based on the fact they tried to trade Bell, couldn't, and so they released him.
ANSWER: There is no difference to the salary cap hit for a traded player vs. a waived/cut player, so it makes no difference that the Jets tried to trade Le'Veon Bell before cutting him. And according to reports, the dead money charge to the Jets salary cap because of their decision to cut ties with Bell is $15.0625 million.

WAYNE DAVY FROM KEY LARGO, FL: What is the penalty for a player if he throws a football into the stands after a touchdown? It often appears that they think twice about doing it.
ANSWER: In the NFL, there is no yardage assessed to a team if one of its players throws a football into the stands, but there is a $7,000 fine to the individual. A second offense would cost $12,000. The reasoning behind this is fan safety. There is no fine if a player hands the football to a fan in the stands, but throwing it into the stands could cause injuries if people start to fight over possession of the souvenir.

RICHARD SNYDER FROM HOBOKEN, NJ: Over the years, it seems that the Steelers trade with certain teams more than others. For example, the Jets seem to be a frequent trading partner (Neil O'Donnell, James Farrior, Santonio Holmes, Willie Colon, Le'Veon Bell, Avery Williamson) and to a lesser extent, the Lions (Charlie Batch, Larry Foote, Jesse James). While each individual trade is unique, I'm curious what guides the team to call a particular club when it's time to trade. Do the Steelers have closer relationships with certain clubs or is it just a coincidence?
ANSWER: I'll get to your question shortly, but first there are a few things that should be cleared up. Neil O'Donnell and Le'Veon Bell, signed with the Jets as unrestricted free agents, and James Farrior signed with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent. Willie Colon signed with the Jets after being released by the Steelers. Charlie Batch signed with the Steelers after being released by the Lions; Larry Foote signed with the Lions after being released by the Steelers, and then he re-signed with the Steelers after his one-year contract with the Lions expired. Jesse James signed with the Lions as an unrestricted free agent. While you list nine players as examples, only two – Santonio Holmes and Avery Williams were involved in trades to or from the Steelers. With the cleared up, every NFL team has pro scouts whose job it is to know which teams around the league might be interested in trading away or acquiring via trade players at certain positions. In a situation such as the Jets' this year and the Dolphins' last year when teams are looking to unload players as part of a rebuilding project, that's also something that becomes known around the league. Remember though that it's a business, and the bottom line in making these kinds of deals is that both sides have to come away from the transaction believing fair value was exchanged.

JERROLD JORDAN FROM WHEATLAND, PA: Explain how you call a late hit on Cam Heyward against Lamar Jackson when he was still inbounds, but after that he played around on the sidelines before he stepped out on the next run. I think it's not fair to the defense when he's a running back first and referees are treating him as a quarterback.
ANSWER: Personally, I find the notion of trying to explain NFL officiating as impossible as trying to explain Stonehenge, and regular readers of this feature are aware I consider instant replay to be the primary culprit in rendering officiating inconsistent and often arbitrary. I also agree that Lamar Jackson, and Patrick Mahomes, should not be permitted to pretend to slide or pretend to go out of bounds only to keep running or turn upfield for more yardage and then whine when they get hit. I get it. I'm on your side of this argument. Jackson was inbounds, and he does flirt with the rules. I also believe that given what I just said about the officiating, and given the nastiness inherent in Steelers-Ravens, and understanding the mandate from the league office to protect quarterbacks even when they're not necessarily entitled to protection, that getting flagged for such a hit should be expected. Yes, it's unfair. But I also view the 15-yard penalty as the cost of doing business, because I want my defensive players to hit Jackson every time one of them has a clean shot. And that was a clean shot, no matter what the zebras ruled. I don't believe it's a coincidence that Jackson's statistics against the Steelers defense are not as good as his statistics against other teams, and I also love that when Coach Mike Tomlin was asked in the postgame about Jackson's performance, he responded, "We have respect for him, but we do not fear him." Jackson is getting the message that when he plays against the Steelers he can expect a physical game, and he's going to get hit. That has value.

NEIL GLASSER FROM MANALAPAN, NJ: With all of the different personnel packages the Steelers run, how is it communicated to the players who should be on the field for each play?
ANSWER: When the Steelers are on defense, one of the coaches up in the booth will call down to the sideline via headset about what personnel grouping the opponent is sending onto the field, and then someone on the Steelers sideline will call out the corresponding personnel grouping they want to have on the field. Players are instructed to be close to the sideline with their helmets on and buckled so that they can respond immediately to the call. On offense, since the play is generated from the Steelers sideline, it's a similar process only without input from upstairs.

EDWARD SPROULL FROM BELLEVUE, PA: Often in your answers you quote extensive historical facts to support your conclusions. Do you have special access to a database with those facts, or are you on your own to search the web for the answers? If I'm totally off base and this all in your memory, I'm very impressed.
ANSWER: Since I'm old, some of it I remember or witnessed first-hand, but other than that I do my own research.

KELVIN FONG FROM AIRDRIE, ALBERTA, CANADA: On a free kick after a safety is scored, can the kicking team attempt an onside kick to try to get the ball back?
ANSWER: Yes, but it's even more high-risk than a normal onside kick, because the team that allowed the safety kicks (punt or off a tee) from its own 20-yard line. The ball has to travel 10 yards, and so if the attempt is unsuccessful, the other team theoretically could end up with possession of the ball inside the 35-yard line and already in field goal range. I understand that desperate times require desperate measures, but an onside kick attempt after a safety in the NFL would be considered very high-risk.

GLEN WHITTEN FROM AGUADILLA, PUERTO RICO: Nothing wakes me up faster than knowing a new installment of Asked and Answered or the latest "Labriola on..." is waiting to be absorbed. With "morning routines" being such a hot topic by today's success gurus, I think more should recommend reading everything written by you. It sure beats eating bran, running five miles, ice baths, or meditating. If you have no objection, I'd like to make it my mission to add "Labriola Time" as an accepted method for maximizing someone's productivity. We could also call it "Mornings With Bob," if you prefer. Would you mind?
ANSWER: Happy to help make your morning, but I have to believe the bran and exercise is better for your longevity than Asked and Answered.

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