Best of Asked and Answered: Friday, August 28

Let's get to it:

MATTHEW RICHARDSON FROM MOODY, AL: Assuming Ryan Switzer makes the roster, do you think he will be back there as a return man again? If not, who do you believe will replace him as the return man?
ANSWER: There are qualities an NFL coach demands in his returners, and at the top of that list is ball security. It doesn't matter how fast or quick or elusive a returner is, if he cannot be counted on to hold onto the football, he won't have a job. Another quality is decision-making – when to field a punt and when to let it go and hope for a touchback. Ryan Switzer is a returner who has reliable hands and generally makes good decisions, and so any decision to replace him would not be as automatic for a coach as it would be for fans or the media. Anyway, over the course of last season, Diontae Johnson gained the Steelers' confidence by being a consistent fielder of punts and by making good decisions back there as the deep man. Then Johnson broke an 85-yard return for a touchdown against Arizona, and he finished the season leading the NFL with a 12.4-yard average on punt returns. Based on that, I believe Johnson has secured the punt returning job. As for kickoff returns, having no preseason games will make that decision more difficult.

TRISTON CREEKMORE FROM GRAFTON, MA: I want to start off by saying I absolutely love this column. Your insight is great and at times hilarious. In your opinion, what are the three biggest pitfalls that could derail our season outside of a key injury?
ANSWER: If the Steelers stay healthy, I believe the roster is good enough to contend for a championship. There is the possibility that depth issues could arise, but if they stay healthy those depth issues would be mitigated significantly. I'm not going to predict that the defense will post 38 takeaways again, but the talent certainly is too good for the unit to fall back to the 15 takeaways (eight interceptions) the defense posted in 2018. Outside of "key injuries" there isn't much standing in the way of the Steelers being a season-long contender, but in today's NFL there are at least a dozen other teams that legitimately can make the same claim.

MARK O'MALLEY FROM MANTUA, OH: JuJu Smith-Schuster had a disappointing drop-off in production last year. Shockingly, he looked like a broken down shadow of his rookie season self. I read he worked very hard in the offseason to gain strength and hand skills. Have you seen any indication in camp that JuJu might return to his former exciting player status?
ANSWER: I have seen some indications, yes. He's wearing No. 7.

HOMER KIMBRELL FROM CINCINNATI, OH: With some new faces in the Steelers wide receiver and tight end rooms, have you noticed the team practicing more formations with multiple tight end and/or wide receiver sets? It will be interesting to see how they get all of these guys on the field.
ANSWER: The Steelers employed a lot of multiple-tight-end, multiple-wide-receiver personnel groupings last season, but they just weren't as effective as in previous years because Ben Roethlisberger wasn't the quarterback. As for more such groupings, there are only so many possibilities, because there can only be a combined number of five backs/receivers/tight ends on the field at one time, and there usually won't be more than eight combined tight ends and wide receivers active on game days. And I also can assure you that getting guys on the field is the least of the coaching staff's concerns. The productive ones are going to see the most playing time.

TODD WYNN FROM MANSFIELD, OH: You rightly criticize fans who lobby for position switches. I mean, why couldn't Ben Roethlisberger play safety, right? But could you talk a little bit about Carnell Lake going from linebacker in college to safety in the pros, and then switching to cornerback after Rod Woodson's injury? How special would he have to be to play those positions at such a high level, and why do you think he isn't talked about more when discussing great Steelers players of the 1990s?
ANSWER: I remember once talking to Carnell Lake, and he said all along that he realized he was going to have to switch from linebacker to safety in order to play in the NFL, and during his senior season at UCLA he would spend some time (when he had some extra time) doing defensive backs drills and generally trying to lay some groundwork for what he understood was going to be in his future. Leading up to the 1989 NFL Scouting Combine, Lake said he worked out with the UCLA defensive backs who were preparing for the Combine, even though in those days Combine preparation wasn't nearly as detailed or sophisticated as it is today. Anyway, Lake knew a position switch was going to be in order for him even before his college football career was over.

But even though Lake knew that he was going to have to switch to safety to make an NFL career for himself, that doesn't mean the switch was a simple one. And it's also worth mentioning, I believe, to note that Lake not only made the switch from college linebacker to NFL safety, he did that well enough to be a second-round draft pick and then start the regular season opener of his rookie year. Moving to the 1995 season, Rod Woodson tore his ACL on the first third down play of the opener, and the Steelers stumbled around for the next month trying to find someone resembling a competent replacement. That failed, and after the Steelers lost a Thursday night game to the Bengals at Three Rivers Stadium to drop to 3-4, Bill Cowher decided to take advantage of the extra time before the team's next game to switch Lake to cornerback. Dick LeBeau was the secondary coach at the time, and he told the story that early the morning after Lake was asked if he would be willing to make the move, Lake was at the door of the team's offices asking to be let in so he could start watching video and learning how to play cornerback. During that 1995 season, Lake agreeing to move from safety to cornerback and then his play at the position stabilized the Steelers' secondary, which then allowed the defense to develop into a unit capable of supporting the team's drive to a Super Bowl. People who know football understand this and recognize Lake's contributions to it.

JEFF ELINOFF FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: Congratulations to Bill Nunn on being selected as the Contributor Finalist for election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2021. It is well deserved. I am aware of his many achievements as he scouted the Black colleges, but was he involved in scouting any schools/players from elsewhere?
ANSWER: Allow me to explain the reality of Bill Nunn's contributions to the Steelers. There was not a significant player drafted by the team who wasn't scouted by Nunn at some point during the process. The Steelers don't have only one scout look at a particular player, especially those players it determines are the "A" or "B" players in a particular draft class. Maybe Nunn wasn't the first to evaluate a player and maybe he wasn't the last, but he assuredly was involved in the evaluation, and his opinion mattered.

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