Let's get to it:
GREG WHARTON FROM SAN ANTONIO, TX: Could you tell me why Hines Ward wasn't a first ballet selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame? The number of receptions, the Super Bowl wins, and Super Bowl MVP, the longevity, (and not that it makes a difference, the good will for blended nationality families).
ANSWER: This isn't directed specifically at Hines Ward, but I believe that all of the rules that have liberalized the passing game in the NFL and the explosion of statistics that have resulted are going to combine to make it difficult for receivers to get elected to the Hall of Fame. Ward currently ranks 14th on the all-time list in receptions, and there are eight guys with more career catches yet to be enshrined, and Ward currently is 25th all-time in receiving yards. Certainly there is a case to be made that Ward belongs in the Hall of Fame, but I don't believe it will be a simple process nor do I see it being a quick one. And understand that when I make those points, I'm making them not with respect to what he deserves but more about when he might be able to round up the necessary votes.
REED OVERAND FROM MONONGAHELA, PA: I know that teams can sign a player off another team's practice squad, but is that player permitted to work out with the team interested in him before signing?
LARRY SHEARER FROM HUBBARD, OH: I am up to my neck hearing about the whole Le'Veon Bell saga. But something that does seem to be happening is defensive scheming regarding Antonio Brown. Do you think not having No. 26 line up as a receiver provides more defensive freedom for opponents to better shut down Antonio?
ANSWER: I don't know about the specific impact in terms of how opponents cover Antonio Brown, but allow me to share this: Going into the Sunday night game, the Steelers had won three in a row against the Ravens. In those three wins, Le'Veon Bell rushed for a combined 314 yards (4.6 average), caught passes for an additional 134 yards and scored seven total touchdowns. Think not having that to worry about that gave the Ravens defense any comfort? Me, too.
DENNIS MOSBY FROM NAPLES, FL: In times past, the Khalil Macks of the world used to be Steelers. I am still one of the old-school believers that good defense stops good offense and that a really good defense can carry a mediocre offense to championships. Have the Steelers scouts abandoned this belief?
ANSWER: The way the NFL game is played today, a team with a mediocre offense cannot win a championship unless it somehow manages to face another team with a mediocre offense in the championship game. And because of the way the sport is legislated at the professional level, difference-making defensive players get picked in the top half of the first round, by and large. Sure there can be exceptions, but getting that kind of player later than the top half of the first round is akin to hitting the lottery, and what I always say about hitting the lottery is that even though it happens just about every day, how many times has it happened to you?
Here is a partial list of dynamic defensive players in the NFL who all were picked in the top half of the first round, and remember that in this century the Steelers have drafted in the top half of the first round five times, and here are the players they got: Plaxico Burress, Ben Roethlisberger, Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, and Bud Dupree.
Now, here's the list of those dynamic defensive players and the year in which they were drafted: 2010: DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Gerald McCoy, S Eric Berry, CB Joe Haden, S Earl Thomas, DE Jason Pierre-Paul. 2011: OLB Von Miller, CB Patrick Peterson, DE J.J. Watt, DE Robert Quinn. 2012: ILB Luke Kuechly, DT Fletcher Cox. 2014: DE Jadaveon Clowney, DE Khalil Mack, LB Anthony Barr, DT Aaron Donald, ILB Ryan Shazier. (NOTE: ILB C.J. Mosley was pick No. 17 by the Baltimore Ravens.) 2015: DE Leonard Williams, OLB Vic Beasley. (NOTE: CB Marcus Peters was pick No. 18 by the Kansas City Chiefs, and he only lasted that long because of some serious issues during his college career at Washington.) 2016: DE Joey Bosa, CB Jalen Ramsey. 2017: DE Myles Garrett, CB Marshon Lattimore
If you want the Steelers to have a shot at guys like Mack and Miller and Ramsey and Garrett, you better start rooting for 2-14 instead of 14-2.
TIM ALAND FROM STEVENSVILLE, MD: Our offense rarely surprised the other team. I guess I know the answer, but we've watched teams play several backs against us yet James Conner seems to be the only back (besides fullback Rosie Nix) who gets in the game. After Conner gained 19 yards against the Ravens, do you think they may mix it up a bit?
ANSWER: There is no doubt that the Steelers have to get their running attack going, and that's only accomplished by execution, not surprise. A defense as seasoned as the Ravens' isn't going to be surprised by too much of anything, and even if it happened once it would be unlikely to happen again. If Conner is healthy, which he seems to be; and if he is the team's best option at the position, which the coaches seem to believe he is; and if he's not being overworked (only nine carries vs. Baltimore), then I believe you stick with him until he shows you he can't handle the job. That course of action doesn't account for periodic rests during games as warranted, but I got the impression you were asking about something of a rotation system.
SCOTT SOKOLOWSKI FROM CLARKSVILLE, MD: During a second half kickoff, what determines the direction the ball is kicked?
ANSWER: The team that wins the opening coin toss is given the first choice, and the options are to receive, kick off, defend a goal, or defer its choice to the second half. If Team A wins the coin toss and elects to receive, then Team B gets to choose which goal to defend. If Team A wins the coin toss and chooses to defend a goal, then Team B can choose to receive or kick off. Those choices will determine in which direction the ball is kicked off at the start of the game, and then the teams switch ends at the start of the second quarter. At the start of the second half, it's the same basic procedure. If Team A won the coin toss and chose to defer, then at the start of the second half it gets to choose whether to receive, kick off, or defend a goal. But if Team A won the coin toss and elected one of the other options – receive, kick off, or defend a goal – then at the start of the second half, Team B gets to pick first, with the only options being to receive, kick off, or defend a goal. Once that choice is made, Team A gets the other option.
JOHN THOMPSON FROM CONNEAUT, OH: When will the defenses start catching back up to the offenses? Seems like the NFL is setting up the rules to disallow this ever happening.
ANSWER: Oh, it's way beyond "seems like." The recent rules changes have made it more difficult to be physical with the quarterback and more difficult to be physical with the receivers. Quarterbacks and receivers at the NFL level are too good to be stopped if there is little or no threat of physical violence.
KURT CARMEL FROM LUTHERVILLE, MD: When do we admit that Ben Roethlisberger has lost a step and bring in one of our other quarterbacks and start looking to next year?
ANSWER: Not until next summer in Latrobe, if then.
STOUGHTON BAILIE FROM TACOMA, WA: What is a better record: 13-3 0 or 13-1-2?
ANSWER: In the NFL, it would be 13-1-2, because a team with that record would have a winning percentage of .875, and the team with a 13-3 record would have a winning percentage of .813.