Let’s get to it:
BRIAN TODD FROM NEW KENSINGTON, PA: How could the Steelers not see the value of having Diontae Spencer as their returner? Plus, imagine the yards he would have gained on reverses and those wide receiver screens that the Steelers love to run.
ANSWER: I also liked Diontae Spencer, but all along this was going to be a difficult team to make as a wide receiver, and as I pointed out a few times over the course of the camp/preseason period, while it’s possible for a player to make the roster based on his abilities as a returner, for that to happen he better bring at least one back for a touchdown during the preseason. Spencer was highly productive in the CFL, and he might have been mis-cast initially by the Steelers as an outside receiver because his forte was as a guy working out of the slot. Whatever it was, Spencer dropped some balls early, and that couldn’t have helped his cause. But as things progressed, Spencer seemed to be gaining his footing as a receiver, but the competition inside was fierce, and he never really was able to pass Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer on the depth chart. I believe the Steelers’ plan all along was to sign Spencer to their practice squad and then continue to develop him as a receiver, but the Broncos foiled that plan by claiming him on waivers.
As this initial group of 53 shapes up, Switzer will serve as the primary returner, but it should be noted that Diontae Johnson has some skill as a returner. During his college career at Toledo, Johnson returned two kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns, and in 2018 he was voted the MAC Special Teams Player of the Year. Injuries prevented him from showing too much of that this summer, but he has some skill in that area and is unquestionably a more polished receiver.
BRYAN CLARK FROM BETHLEHEM, PA: Do you think these five receivers and three tight ends are capable of carrying the load? I’m really disappointed by their selections. In what universe is Ryan Switzer more dynamic than either Diontae Spencer, Johnny Holton, or Eli Rogers?
ANSWER: Ryan Switzer isn’t being paid to be “dynamic.” He’s being paid to be reliable, consistent, dependable, and where the quarterback needs him to be when the quarterback needs him to be there. JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Donte Moncrief are being paid to be dynamic. As explained in the previous answer, Diontae Spencer needed a bit more seasoning as a wide receiver and was slated for the practice squad, but he was claimed by Denver; Johnny Holton is on the practice squad; and all due respect to Eli Rogers, but he is neither dynamic as a receiver nor dependable as a returner.
BECKY LUNAN FROM MARION, TX: So was James Washington cut? He performed so well in our preseason games.
ANSWER: I would suggest you either re-check your source of that information, or quit going to that source for information. James Washington was not waived.
JIM MACPHERSON FROM BEACHWOOD, NJ: Seems we are very heavy on the defensive side. Wish we had kept Johnny Holton. Did I miss something, or is Ryan Switzer our only returner?
ANSWER: Yes, the Steelers kept a lot of linebackers and defensive backs, as they should have based on the emphasis on combining pressure and coverage to increase the number of takeaways. And as noted in a previous answer, Diontae Johnson returned four kicks for touchdowns during his time at Toledo – two punts and two kickoffs – and he was voted MAC Special Teams Player of the Year in 2018.
JACK BERNARD FROM NORTH AUGUSTA, SC: I notice that cornerback Brian Allen is not listed on the 53-man roster nor was he listed among the final cuts. What happened to him?
ANSWER: Brian Allen was injured in the Steelers’ third preseason game – on Sunday, Aug. 25 in Tennessee against the Titans. The Steelers waived him injured in advance of the final cut-down on Aug. 31, which means he will receive some kind of monetary settlement and then become a free agent capable of signing with any team once he is healthy enough to pass a physical.
MICHAEL WOLOZYN FROM OIL CITY, PA: I know hindsight is a wonderful thing, but do you think that the Steelers made a serious mistake in not negotiating a contract with Jesse James when they had the chance? If not, why?
ANSWER: I cannot state this more emphatically: When it came to the Jesse James situation, both sides did EXACTLY what they should have done. By that I mean James’ agent absolutely, positively should have taken his client into free agency to see what financial windfall would be available, and there is no way the Steelers should have gotten into competitive bidding based on what James quickly received from the Detroit Lions once free agency opened. To recap one final time: James signed a four-year $22.6 million contract with the Lions that included a $7.145 million signing bonus and $10.5 million fully guaranteed at signing. Starting in 2020, James’ base salaries will be $3.8 million, $4.95 million, $5.7 million, and $5.9 million. Again, that’s great for James and his family, and he absolutely did the right thing. But so did the Steelers by not paying that kind of money to someone who isn’t that kind of a player.
DAVE SHERMAN FROM WARREN, OH: What was the impetus to the current practice of cutting the roster from 90 players to 53 a couple of days after the preseason finale, as opposed to week to week (gradually) as it was done in the past?
ANSWER: I remember that there used to be two mandatory cut-downs during the preseason, but I cannot recall there every being a weekly cut-down as you describe. Anyway, I believe the reasoning behind keeping all of the 90 players on the roster through the entire preseason schedule was to have as many bodies available for those games as possible, because one of the primary goals of every preseason is to get through it without having front-line players lost to injury. By keeping 90 players on the roster through the fourth preseason game, teams don’t have to risk injury to the guys who are going to be the difference between winning and losing once the regular season begins.
For example, this is a list of the players the Steelers didn’t dress for their most recent preseason finale: Ben Roethlisberger, Chris Boswell, Donte Moncrief, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Sean Davis, Steven Nelson, Joe Haden, Mark Barron, Mike Hilton, James Conner, Terrell Edmunds, Jaylen Samuels, Rosie Nix, Bud Dupree, Maurkice Pouncey, Anthony Chickillo, Kam Canaday, David DeCastro, Matt Feiler, Ramon Foster, Al Villanueva, Javon Hargrave, Xavier Grimble, Vance McDonald, T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward, and Vince Williams. And Ola Adeniyi was still recovering from knee surgery.
CREE ICKES FROM AVENEL, NJ: Can a player like Devin Bush be a Defensive Rookie of the Year and the Defensive Player of the Year?
ANSWER: There is no rule against it, if that’s what you mean.
JEFF NEAL FROM MURFREESBORO, TN: I think Benny Snell led the Steelers running backs in carries during the preseason. Do you think he will get time at the position during the regular season behind starter James Conner?
ANSWER: Benny Snell did indeed lead the team with 28 rushing attempts during the preseason, but he managed 54 yards on those carries for a 1.9 average. I understand Snell didn’t get to play much behind the No. 1 offensive line, but statistics are statistics. As for what his contributions might be early in the regular season, Coach Mike Tomlin gave an indication when he was asked what he needed to see from Snell heading into the preseason finale in order to earn a spot on the roster:
“He’s just got to continue the upward trajectory of what he’s shown us to this point,” said Tomlin, “and I’ll be really specific: He made a kickoff team tackle in the first preseason game, and he made a significant tackle on the punt team in the second preseason game. Notice I’m talking about things other than the things you would naturally measure Benny Snell in regards to, because he’s trying to get on the football team and carve out a role for himself. He’ll probably cover a punt or a kickoff for us before he carries the football, and that’s just the reality of it.”