Let's get to it:
TODD WALKER FROM PORT SAINT LUCIE, FL: When Derek Watt was signed did you think the Steelers would be going to a two-back formation a little more this year as I did? Doesn't seem like it so far. Not complaining just asking if we thought the same?
ANSWER: I did not see the signing of unrestricted free agent Derek Watt as an indication that the Steelers were going to use a two-back offensive set more often, because the Steelers offense is and will be built around Ben Roethlisberger. A team doesn't decide to pay what the Steelers decided to pay Roethlisberger and then steer the focus of the offense toward a two-back, power-based running game. I find it amusing when Steelers fans reminisce about the times when the Steelers' offense was driven by a big-back running the football behind a fullback. Fun to watch, but those teams always seemed to come up short in the playoffs, because the passing attack wasn't what it needed to be for the team to win a championship.
All along I believed the addition of Watt was to offset the losses of both Tyler Matakevich and Roosevelt Nix and the impact those losses would have on the special teams units. That's not to say Watt will have no impact as a fullback, because in the win over the Broncos the game-clinching 59-yard run by James Conner happened because of the blocking by Watt and Matt Feiler, who both pulled from the left side of the formation and led Conner around the right side.
Another thing to remember is that this was an offseason with no OTAs or minicamps, and so it's possible the plan to incorporate a fullback into the offense on a more regular basis had to be postponed because of a lack of on-field practice time.
KARINA LATSKO FROM CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, PA: It feels like we've seen a lot of dramatic injuries in just the first two weeks of the season. Does this season have a higher rate of injuries than previous years, or are we just noticing them more because of the circumstances? Do you think not having a preseason could really have affected player's health that much?
ANSWER: There are always a rash of serious injuries at the start of an NFL season or preseason because it's at one of those times when players begin to push their bodies seriously to meet the demands of the sport, and when that happens, muscles, ligaments, and tendons sometimes rebel. With no preseason games this year, this phenomenon happened early in this regular season when a lot of eyeballs are focused on the NFL. We're just noticing the injuries at a different time of the season. And yes, the lack of a preseason could contribute to these injuries, because there is something to be said about easing the body into strenuous physical activity, and playing football at the NFL level is a strenuous physical activity. Boxers spar before getting into the ring against a real opponent, and some people believe football is similar to boxing in the respect that working up to competition can be helpful.
MIKE FEDERICO FROM COLLIERVILLE, TN: How do sacks impact offensive statistics? How are they recorded in the quarterback's individual statistics? I always thought sacks impacted the quarterback's rushing yards, but upon looking over the stats of the win over Denver it appears the lost yards are deducted from passing yards.
ANSWER: It's in college football that sack yardage is deducted from the quarterback's rushing statistics, but that's not the case in the NFL. In the NFL, sacks are deducted from the passing yardage total, and the number of passing yards minus sack yards is referred to as net yards passing. As for individual NFL quarterbacks, sacks are simply noted in a separate category, but they have no impact on his individual rushing or passing yardage total.
MICHAEL McCHESNEY FROM ZELIENOPLE, PA: I have been so impressed with Mike Hilton. I thought he took some big strides last year and is off to an excellent 2020 campaign. Can you enlighten us with his contract details as well as your thoughts on him?
ANSWER: Mike Hilton is extremely active in his role as the starting nickel, and his timing as a pass rusher and his ability to work his way through the blockers and get to the quarterback is uncanny for a man who's listed at 5-foot-9, 184 pounds. But that size can be a detriment when Hilton is matched against taller and bigger wide receivers, and there have been instances where offenses have tried to isolate him in coverage to take advantage of that. Hilton is a good player, one who also shows up against an opponent's running game, which makes it easier for him to be on the field in a variety of down-and-distance situations. As for Hilton's contract status, he is playing the 2020 season on a one-year contract worth $3.259 million, and he will be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in March 2021.
HUMBERTO NUNEZ FROM WEST NEW YORK, NJ: When right guard David DeCastro comes back healthy, is it possible to have him or Kevin Dotson start at left guard and have Matt Feiler as a backup tackle?
ANSWER: It's possible because there's nothing in the rule book to prohibit it, but I couldn't bet a dime that it would happen. Matt Feiler is a starter, and he has played well enough at both right tackle and now left guard not to be demoted to being a backup. The only situation in which I could see Feiler being moved from his starting left guard role is in an emergency situation where the Steelers incur more injuries at the tackle spot. Only then could I see him being moved from left guard, but in my scenario he then would become a starting tackle, not a backup.
JOSHUA KARPER FROM OWENSBORO, KY: With all the weapons the Steelers have on offense, why do they struggle to execute screen passes? Every game we run several and they are almost always for negative yardage.
ANSWER: I don't know whether there is a direct correlation between an offense having weapons on offense and being able to execute screen passes successfully. But you are not wrong in your assessment of the offense's difficulty with screen passes. And it has been an issue dating back to the 1990s when Bill Cowher was the coach.
BRYCE KYBURZ FROM AUSTIN, TX: I am curious to know if "Renegade" was played at some point in the second half of Sunday's game against the Broncos even though there were no fans to amp up the atmosphere? If they did, what did it feel like it? Was it strange?
ANSWER: Yes, "Renegade" was played on the Heinz Field jumbotron at a point in the fourth quarter, as per usual, and what it felt like was a song being played in an empty stadium. I have made this point many times, and in my opinion what happened on Sunday lent credence to it: The impact of "Renegade" doesn't come from the song itself but from the fans' reaction to it. With no fans in the stands, it seemed to me it had no impact. However, I understand the interest in trying to create something that resembles the normal in-stadium experience, and so at Heinz Field that includes the playing of "Renegade."
JEFFREY BRASHEAR FROM MIAMI BEACH, FL: To my eyes, Dustin Colquitt does not seem to be an upgrade over Jordan Berry as the punter. What do your eyes (and the data) tell you?
ANSWER: My eyes do not disagree with your eyes. And if memory serves, the best punt Dustin Colquitt has hit in the two games of this regular season was the 54-yarder against the Broncos that went for a touchback, which means it counts as a 34-yard net.
TOM GARRETT FROM MOON TOWNSHIP, PA: I apologize if you've already covered this subject. But, what are your thoughts on giving a 31-year-old defensive lineman a four-year contract? If it weren't for Cam Heyward's local charity work, do you think he still would get a four-year contract if he wasn't so involved in the community?
ANSWER: Yes, I have gone into detail in a "Labriola on" column about why I believed it was very important for the Steelers to re-sign Cam Heyward to try to make sure he finishes his career with this franchise, but I believe it's important enough to go over it one more time. Let's begin with this: I believe you're making a mistake in looking at the situation as a team signing a 31-year-old defensive lineman to a four-year contract, because that doesn't account for who that 31-year-old defensive lineman is and what he contributes to this team. And I can absolutely guarantee you that the Steelers didn't negotiate that contract with Cam Heyward only because he's active in the community. Being a citizen of the community is part of what makes Heyward a special person, but that doesn't help you win on Sundays. Or Mondays or Thursdays, either
On the field, Cam Heyward has been voted first-team All-Pro in two of the previous three seasons, and he is one of only two interior defensive linemen in Steelers history to be voted first-team All-Pro more than once. And with every significant statistical milestone in franchise history involving interior defensive linemen, the other player to be so recognized was Joe Greene.
The reason why Heyward was voted to three Pro Bowls and first-team All-Pro twice in his previous three season was because he accounted for 179 tackles, 29 sacks, 63 hits on the quarterback, 12 passes defensed, four forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries. Plus when an anonymous NFL assistant coach made a big deal of the way Heyward manhandled Colts guard Quenton Nelson, himself a first-team All-Pro in each of his two NFL seasons, it was Heyward who spoke up. "Man I'm not with that," tweeted Heyward in response. "So because I had a good game it devalues a great talent? Dude is (a) heck of a talent. How about I'm a great player myself, and we won the game, simple as that. I know Q is a dog, and I know it's a 5-star matchup when we line up."
But Heyward is more than a great player, and what he brings to this franchise and means to it go beyond on-field contributions and accomplishments. Heyward is a leader, a six-time defensive team captain, an example for others not only for how he approaches his profession but also for the way he conducts himself as a citizen. It was important for the Steelers to lock up Heyward with a representative contract as a message to the other players in their locker room that if they do things the right way on and off the field, if they do things as Cam Heyward has done them on and off the field since being a No. 1 pick in 2011, then they will be rewarded, too.