Asked and Answered

Asked and Answered: Sept. 2

Let's get to it:

ANDREW SCHERBIK FROM CHESAPEAKE, VA: Now that the preseason is over, which rookie really stood out to you?
ANSWER: I believe in time, the Steelers 2021 draft class will be remembered fondly for the number of talented players it added to the roster, but if asked to choose one I have to go with Najee Harris. Because of the criticism for selecting a running back in the first round, I believe there is an extra level of pressure on Harris and also on the Steelers for picking him instead of an offensive lineman, and Harris has shown himself to be a consummate professional from the first day of rookie minicamp. It's clear from the preseason games that Harris is the best running back on the roster, and his 46-yard catch-and-run against the Lions showcased what he can do for the offense as a receiver out of the backfield. Harris also demonstrated a level of professionalism right off the bat that many rookies need time to develop and exhibit, and he showed that quickly enough and to a sufficient level that Coach Mike Tomlin felt comfortable holding him out of the preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers. Also worth noting is that Harris was the only healthy rookie awarded that distinction. Other members of the 2021 draft class include Pat Freiermuth, Kendrick Green, Dan Moore, Buddy Johnson, and Tre Norwood, and I also see them as having bright futures in the NFL, but in my opinion, Najee Harris already looks like a special player.

ALLEN FRIEND FROM VANCOUVER, WA: There are always surprises when the final cuts are made. I'm wondering if you were surprised by anything regarding the final roster?
ANSWER: I found it curious that the Steelers cut both B.J. Finney and Rashaad Coward, because those moves left the team with only one backup for the interior of the offensive line – J.C. Hassenauer – even though Joe Haeg did start one game at left guard for Tampa Bay in 2020. But I believe this is one of those short-term anomalies that will change once we get closer to the start of the regular season.

DAN CONNERTON FROM BINGHAMTON, NY: After seeing the roster trimmed to 53 players, do you believe the team is planning on adding a cornerback and offensive tackle from the outside? I can't recall them ever keeping so few offensive linemen and cornerbacks to start a season.
ANSWER: Let me begin with this: What I can't recall is the team going from the announcement of the cuts to 53 players to the opening of the regular season without tweaking the roster to some degree. To answer your specific question, I also noticed what I thought was a low number of offensive linemen (eight) and cornerbacks (four) on the initial 53-man roster. There certainly is the possibility of adding players from among the number of players waived/released on Aug. 31. Something to remember is that if a player is waived, the waiver claiming period is 24 hours and then the NFL will award the claimed player(s) to the teams with the highest waiver priority. So, while I expect some roster activity, it's going to take some time for the process to work itself out.

ED JACKSON FROM IMPERIAL, PA: Now that the Steelers have made cuts to get down to the initial 53-man roster limit, one thing I found puzzling was that they kept eight defensive linemen when their base defense is a 3-4. What is your take on this?
ANSWER: The only explanation I can offer is that the decision to keep an extra defensive lineman could have something to do with Stephon Tuitt's availability for the start of the regular season. Another thing to consider is that both Henry Mondeaux and Isaiahh Loudermilk are capable of making contributions on special teams, as Brett Keisel did during the early stages of his NFL career, so maybe one, or both, of them were kept with special teams in mind.

PATRICK FLYNN FROM OAKDALE, PA: Does Coach Mike Tomlin meet individually with the players who are released? Or does some of this fall to the assistant coaches?
ANSWER: I did an interview with Coach Mike Tomlin a few years ago, and the topic of cut-down day was one of the topics he discussed. Here is a portion of that interview as it pertains to your question:

Q. What is cut-down day like for you?
A. It's not a good day. It's the worst day of the year, quite frankly. But in another way, it's an exciting day because you have great clarity in terms of who the initial 53 are going to be and you're starting to work with a smaller number of men and really focusing on the challenges that lie ahead. But at the same time, you're informing some men that they didn't do what they desired to do, what you watched them work for over the course of a number of months. This is not like a lot of jobs. What's required from an effort standpoint, from a commitment standpoint, even to have an opportunity be at the doorstep, is special. It's a tough day when you have to inform somebody his journey is over.

Q. How do you handle your end of that conversation?
A. Usually what I do is I give them black-and-white information as I see it, what I believe led to the decision. Then I get a feel from them what direction we go. If they need further information to determine what their next step in football or in life is, I'm there to answer that. If there's some disagreement in terms of my decision-making to a degree, I'm there to discuss and talk about that. If they want to get out of the room and move on, I'm open to that. After I say what it is I feel needs to be said, get them the information I believe they deserve, I really get my feel from them in terms of where we go from there.

PAT FLYNN FROM OAKDALE, PA: With the new long-snapping and holding combo for field goals and extra points, was Chris Boswell ever asked for his input? Do Coach Mike Tomlin or General Manager Kevin Colbert casually ask input from other players on personnel decisions?
ANSWER: I don't know that it ever reaches the level of specifically asking for an opinion, but certainly in the case of Chris Boswell, Coach Mike Tomlin is sensitive to what his placekicker needs from the long-snapper and the holder to do his job successfully.

DEREK LAKE FROM BUSHNELL, FL: Given that Joe Schobert was given the green dot, that would mean that he should be on the field most of the time, correct? I also read that Robert Spillane is a better run stopper. So, if Devin Bush is on the field for most of the plays, why wouldn't he get the green dot?
ANSWER: Let's start with this: Devin Bush still is fewer than 12 months removed from needing surgery to repair a torn ACL, and so there is the possibility that when the season opens he won't be physically ready to play 100 percent of the defensive snaps in every game, but rest assured that when his knee is 100 percent and he is 100 percent confident that his knee is 100 percent, Bush is the Steelers' every-down, all-situations inside linebacker. Robert Spillane is capable of wearing the green dot as the defensive playcaller, but the reference to him being a better run-stuffer, I believe, refers to Spillane being a better run-stuffer than he is a coverage linebacker. And that was clearly evident during the preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers. The Steelers use a lot of different personnel packages on defense, and so getting Joe Schobert comfortable wearing the green dot on his helmet was just a part of acclimating him to the team and getting him familiar with the defensive scheme. There is no harm in having more than one guy capable of handling that job.

MICHAEL POLECHKO FROM MOUNT PLEASANT, PA: During the preseason finale vs. Carolina, the Steelers muffed a punt, and a Panthers player picked it up and ran it into the end zone. It was ruled no touchdown. Why no touchdown, and where (and why) was the ball spotted?
ANSWER: It starts with the rule that a muffed punt can be recovered by the kicking team, but it cannot be advanced. A muffed punt is one that makes contact with a member of the receiving team and becomes a live ball, which is different than a fumbled punt that is defined as one that has been possessed by a member of the receiving team who then loses possession of the ball. The ruling on the field in the situation you reference was that Mathew Sexton muffed the punt – i.e., he never had possession of the ball – and so once recovered by a Panthers player it could not be advanced. And so, the Panthers were awarded the ball at the spot of the recovery, and the touchdown was taken off the scoreboard.

DON MARSHALL FROM CINCINNATI, OH: If a player is on the 53-man roster one year, but the following year is placed on the practice squad are there any salary implications? And do the practice squad players practice with the 53 players during the week?
ANSWER: If a player is on the 53-man roster, he is paid a salary stipulated by the terms of his contract, and in 2021 the minimum salary for a rookie is $660,000 for the season, to use that as an example. That works out to $36,666.67 per week over the course of the 17-game regular season. Before a player can be put on the practice squad, he first must be waived, which terminates his contract, and then he signs a practice squad contract. The minimum salary for a practice squad player in 2021 is $14,000 per week. Players on the practice squad do everything that players on the 53-man roster do except have a chance to play in games.

CHERYL BONANNO FROM BLOOMINGTON IN: I'm interested in your esteemed view of the NFL's need for some sort of minor league system. Maybe contract with the Canadian Football League for it? I don't see how a player like Dwayne Haskins will improve through practices and by standing on the sideline instead of playing in actual games.
ANSWER: Or Dwayne Haskins could have stayed in college and continued to be the starting quarterback at Ohio State. There, he would've been able to see game action in one of college football's best conferences while being the starting quarterback for a team that annually finds itself in contention for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Now that the courts have forced the NCAA to allow student-athletes to earn money through use of their name, image, and likeness – referred to as NIL – maybe the rush to leave early to turn professional will be slowed a bit. I just don't believe the creation of a minor league for the NFL is realistic or viable, because if it was it already would have happened.

SCOTT RANDALL FROM CONWAY, PA: Regardless of how the depth chart at quarterback behind Ben Roethlisberger shakes out, do you believe the team is just hanging onto them until they maybe trade for someone next year or draft a quarterback due to Roethlisberger's one-year deal?
ANSWER: Without getting into all of the details of a contract with voidable years, Ben Roethlisberger's contract isn't automatically a one-year deal, even though it easily can become one. Anyway, I have cautioned fans over and over not to look too far ahead when it comes to personnel plans/decisions, because that's not how the Steelers operate. Keeping this discussion on quarterbacks, I can assure you there is no way the Steelers already have ruled out Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins as candidates to follow Roethlisberger as the starting quarterback. There is too much time between now and when that decision has to be made, which means there is too much that could happen between now and when that decision has to be made. In time, the Steelers plan for moving forward at quarterback will become clear, and until then guessing about what those plans might be and then how they will turn out is an exercise in futility.

JOHNIE JOHNSON FROM SAN ANTONIO, TX: What are the chances of the Steelers going after Cam Newton now that the Patriots have parted ways with him?
ANSWER: And there we are, ladies and gentlemen. The winning ticket is for 1:25 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, Aug. 31.