Let's get to it:
JEMARE WILLIAMS FROM STERLING HEIGHTS, MI: I have been defending Mike Tomlin's decision to go for the first down instead of kicking the field goal late in the game vs. the Cowboys. The Steelers special teams were not good against the Cowboys: a blocked extra point, another of Chris Boswell's attempts was almost blocked, and there were other special teams miscues. I have been reminding people how Chuck Noll made a similar decision when his special teams were not good one particular Sunday, but he had a good defense. Can you please remind your readers of that particular Sunday, because I am sure you can do it much better than I can?
ANSWER: Yes, Chuck Noll made a similar decision, and the particular Sunday to which you are referring was Jan. 18, 1976, the date of Super Bowl X, during which the Steelers were rather heavily favored to defeat Dallas. I will list the Steelers special teams mistakes that led to the decision Noll made with 1:28 left in the fourth quarter and the Steelers protecting a 21-17 lead:
• On the opening kickoff, Preston Pearson and Thomas Henderson ran a reverse on the return with Henderson taking the handoff and gaining 53 yards.
• On the Steelers' first punt attempt of the game, Bobby Walden fumbled the snap, and his recovery gave the ball to the Cowboys at the Pittsburgh 29-yard line. On the next play, Roger Staubach hit Drew Pearson with a 29-yard touchdown pass to give Dallas a 7-0 lead and a shot of confidence.
• On a fourth-and-2 from the Cowboys 36-yard line, Noll goes for a first down instead of attempting a field goal. The pass is incomplete.
• Walden's next punt travels 32 yards.
• Gerela misses a 36-yard field goal attempt to the left just before the end of the first half. Dallas leads, 10-7.
• On Walden's first punt of the second half, he barely gets the kick off, and it travels 34 yards.
• Gerela misses a 33-yard field goal, wide to the left.
• Walden's next punt travels 34 yards.
• Dave Brown fumbles a Mitch Hoopes punt, and J.T. Thomas recovers for the Steelers at their 17-yard line.
• After a 64-yard touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann, Gerela misses the extra point.
So it's 21-17, and after Gerry Mullins recovers an onside kick attempt, the Steelers have the ball at the Dallas 42-yard line with 1:47 left. On first down, Franco Harris loses 2 yards. On second down, Harris gains 2 yards. On third down, Rocky Bleier gains 1 yard. That makes it fourth-and-9 from the Dallas 42-yard line with 1:28 left, and the Cowboys are out of timeouts. Since the clock will stop on the change of possession, Noll could have had Walden punt and the best the Cowboys likely end up with is a touchback. But since he had no confidence in his special teams ability to execute a punt, he ordered another handoff to Bleier, which gained 2 yards. The Cowboys took over at their 39-yard line with 1:22 remaining.
Dallas would gain a first down at the Pittsburgh 38-yard line, and then Staubach, under heavy pressure threw incomplete for Drew Pearson. Then he threw incomplete in the end zone for Paul Howard. His next pass was to Pearson in the end zone, and it was intercepted by safety Glen Edwards. Time for the trophy presentation.
In the official NFL Films account of the game, the script written for John Faccenda that was approved by the Steelers, stated that Noll didn't trust his special teams to execute a punt on fourth-and-2 and instead opted to turn the game over to his great defense.
SHAWN FRANKLIN FROM JOHNSTOWN, PA: How many times did the Steelers get stuffed on third-and-1 or fourth-and-1 vs. Dallas?
ANSWER: In the second quarter, the Steelers failed on a third-and-1 and then a fourth-and-1 on back-to-back plays. Anthony McFarland was stopped for no gain on third down and Benny Snell was stopped for no gain on fourth down. Then there was the fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter where James Conner tried to run around left end.
ISRAEL PICKHOLTZ FROM ASHKELON, ISRAEL: Has there been a change in the rule that allows a pass interception in the end zone to be brought out to the 20-yard line? If not, why did Minkah Fitzpatrick bring the ball out instead of taking the free 20 yards?
ANSWER: Minkah Fitzpatrick has scored three defensive touchdowns in his first 22 games with the Steelers, one of which was a 96-yard interception return. He is a dynamic playmaker and coaches typically don't want to harness an individual with those skills and that record of success. It was a split second decision and this time it didn't work. If he brings one out of the end zone for a big gain the next time, I doubt there will be any complaints. What was costly was the penalty for an illegal block in the back that nullified Fitzpatrick's modest return and put the ball at the Pittsburgh 1-yard line.
JAKE STEED FROM COEUR D'ALENE, ID: It was awesome to watch Chris Boswell make a 59-yard franchise record field goal last Sunday afternoon. Can you tell us what was the previous record and if it made a difference in the game? Also while we're on the subject what is the most memorable field goal made or missed of your tenure?
ANSWER: The previous record for the longest field goal in franchise history was 55 yards, and it was shared by Kris Brown and Gary Anderson. Brown's kick was against Kansas City on Oct. 14, 2001 at Arrowhead Stadium. The Steelers defeated the Chiefs, 20-17, but Brown's kick came in the second quarter and gave the Steelers a 6-0 lead. Anderson's kick came against the Chargers on Nov. 25, 1984 at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers won that game, 55-24. The most memorable field goal attempt, made or missed, of my professional career came in the 2005 AFC Divisional Round against the Indianapolis Colts in the RCA Dome. Mike Vanderjaht's attempt from 46 yards to tie the game with 21 seconds left was wide right.
RAYMOND CHASON FROM CONNEAUTVILLE, PA: How has Mike Hilton's injury affected how our defense plays?
ANSWER: In the last couple of games, the Ravens rushed for 265 yards and averaged 5.6 per attempt, and Dallas rushed for 144 yards and averaged 4.6 per attempt. Coach Mike Tomlin has referred to Mike Hilton on more than one occasion as a significant run defender. In a recent Q&A, I asked Tomlin how a 5-foot-9 cornerback can be a significant run defender. Here is his answer:
"The nature of the position he plays, the nickel back position, those guys usually come at you with big-time coverage ability and awareness. When you find one who has an appetite for the run game and a nose for the run game, and an appetite for blitzing the way Mike does, it is unique. We realize that's an asset to us, and it's probably why our sub-package run defense is as strong as it is. And that's why we were really concerned in the stadium last weekend in Baltimore. We were playing without Tyson Alualu in our base defense, and we were playing without Mike Hilton in our sub-package defense, and you're talking about two critical components to run defense – one in base and one in sub. And it's funny, they look and are shaped very differently, but both are very critical in terms of us getting after the run game."
At his weekly news conference, Tomlin said he expected to have both Hilton and Tyson Alualu available for Sunday's game vs. the Bengals, and so I would imagine the Steelers' run defense will be better as a result of their return.
WALLACE HORTON FROM HYATTSVILLE, MD: Do you agree we will be in a world of trouble if Ben Roethlisberger goes down for a period of time? Watching Mason Rudolph makes me nervous every time I see him take a snap.
ANSWER: It takes neither a genius nor a football expert to understand the Steelers would be in trouble if they lost their franchise quarterback, their two-time Super Bowl winning future Hall of Fame quarterback, for a period of time. But guess what? So would the Kansas City Chiefs, the Seattle Seahawks, the Buffalo Bills, the Tennessee Titans, the Green Bay Packers, the Arizona Cardinals, the Los Angeles Rams, and the New Orleans Saints be in a world of trouble if Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, Ryan Tannehill, Aaron Rodgers, Kyler Murray, Jared Goff, and Drew Brees would go down for a period of time, and the Dallas Cowboys already are in a world of trouble. Welcome to the NFL.
DANIEL MAZENKO FROM LITITZ, PA: We have heard over and over how the duo of Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger never have had a losing season together. Have they ever been shut out while Ben has been the quarterback?
ANSWER: The last time the Steelers were shut out was in Jacksonville, 6-0, on Sept. 18, 2006. Mike Tomlin was not hired to coach the Steelers until 2007.
JIM HILDRETH FROM EASTHAM, MA: It's obvious that Ben Roethlisberger is playing excellent football, but I have to wonder why he keeps overthrowing receivers on passes deep down the field?
ANSWER: My guess would be that it has something to do with the combination of elbow surgery, plus no offseason program, plus no OTAs or minicamp, plus a weird training camp and no preseason games.
JC CHUTA FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: Can an official penalize a head coach or another coach on the sideline? I saw Dallas Coach Mike McCarthy really light up an official during the Steelers game.
ANSWER: Yes, there can be unsportsmanlike conduct fouls assessed on all sideline personnel. It's not restricted to coaches.
MK TON FROM PORTLAND, OR: In the game with Dallas on Nov. 8 of this year, the Steelers took to the field in their black jerseys, which I thought are for home games. I may have missed the reason for this during the broadcast, but would you provide the explanation?
ANSWER: NFL rules state that the home team, or designated home team in the case of games played on a neutral site such as the Super Bowl, is given the choice of what jersey to wear. For scheduled preseason and regular season games, every team must submit to the league office by a certain date what color it wants to wear at each of its home games. Then the visiting teams are forwarded that information and plan accordingly. It was Dallas that decided it wanted to wear white at home, and so the Steelers had no choice but to wear black.