I hope you all enjoyed your one weekend this fall without Steelers action. Pardon my absence this morning while I tended to other matters. Let's get things back into gear with a Q&A with my favorite Steelers reporter Jim Wexell. Don't forget that Wexell has a new book out, which I myself have begun reading. A full review is coming soon enough, but believe me, it's worth evey last red cent.
1) What the hell is going on with Max Starks? Is your guess as good as ours or is there something you may know about why he can't even beat out Trai Essex for a reserve role?
I reported last February of a difference of opinion between the front office and coaching staff on Starks, but I was still caught off guard by their decision to play Essex over Starks when Marvel Smith got hurt against Jacksonville. But I'm buying Mike Tomlin's explanation that Essex was going up against a smaller, speedier rusher in Quentin Groves. I think that matchup made more sense than using Starks over there at left tackle.
I realize most people are calling the transition tag one of the great mistakes in Steelers personnel history. While I agree it was a mistake, I do feel that Starks could pay off in a big way this season. If they're in a big game, and they need a pro tackle to step in, I'm not sure anyone will be thinking about the price tag -- unless Starks bombs when called upon, but I don't think he will.
2) You know how fans can be: when a problem arises, seek out the offensive coordinator and immediately begin pointing fingers. What's your take on how Arians has done since the Philadelphia game?
Wexell: Well, you knew Baltimore would be difficult, and the Steelers prevailed. But I thought Arians' best moment came last week against Jacksonville. He spread the offense on early downs, threw the short, quick passes that he normally abhors, threw to the backs, the tight ends. In general, Arians called the game for which the fans and media have been asking. Still, Jacksonville doesn't have much of a pass rush. Let's see if Arians builds off that game and the Steelers can effectively move the ball against a real, live pass-rushing team.
3) Do you think we'll keep 5 RBs moving forward now that we know what we have in Mewelde Moore. Seems like at least one of the trio of Najeh Davenport, Gary Russell or Carey Davis is expendable. We have tended to keep 5 RBs though when health is not an issue.
Wexell: It's always a numbers game. I see them keeping five until a minor injury occurs at another position, say undrafted rookie linebacker/special teamer, and you have to keep both Donovan Woods and Patrick Bailey on the roster. Then I could see Najeh Davenport getting cut, since Gary Russell flashed in a real game what he'd been showing in preseason games and practice. I also believe Dallas Baker can be stashed on the practice squad if necessary.
4) How impressed are you watching LaMarr Woodley? Can you tell us something about his game that we may not pick up watching from home that's helping him just explode onto the scene in year #2.
Wexell: I don't think I'm any different than any of the reporters who watched him dominate line drills early in camp, or fans who watched him all preseason. I think everyone knew he was a stud-in-the-making. What's surprising me is his agility in open space. He's given them coverage skills and sound open-field tackling. I know we were all surprised by that even in the 2007 Hall of Fame Game, but he's built upon it and is becoming a Kevin Greene who can cover.
5) This is probably an unfair quesiton but do you think we'll re-up Bryant McFadden this offseason? Feel free to pass if you think there's no way to tell, but the way we see it, it's a sound investment considering how well he's played, not to mention all the other high priority needs in the next couple of drafts.
6) When's the last time you saw a Steelers defense that was playing this well? Sure there have been a few down moments on a series here or there, but overall, this unit is dominating, and from where I sit, they're good enough to keep us in the thick of just about every game, as well as the playoff picture in the AFC. Or maybe I'm just overestimating their play when compared to the up-and-down play of the offense.
Wexell: No, Michael, I don't think you're overestimating them. This is the best defense I've seen here since the mid 1990s and Blitzburgh. I think the recent display of DL depth showed so much. It reinforced that they have depth at all defensive positions. It's also a different game than it was in the mid 1990s, when LeBeau had the boys feasting on dropback quarterbacks unaccustomed to seeing such pressure. Now, that kind of pressure is so prevelant that young QBs are better prepared going into a game against a team like the Steelers. So now it's up to raw talent and even further innovation, which the Steelers have on both counts. I don't think we've seen even a tip of what LeBeau can do with a Lawrence Timmons and a healthy and bigger Troy Polamalu on the field at the same time.
7) To conclude, can you comment on what you've seen out of Darnell Stapleton? It was our fantasy somewhat that just one or two changes along the line personnel wise might totally change things for the better, even if the individuals being subbed in were nothing to necessarily write home about. As a follow up, any thoughts on Justin Hartwig's play since the Philly game and how he may or may not be comfortable now that he's beside Stapleton?
Wexell: I can't say that I've watched Hartwig closely, but I think it's clear that he's been an upgrade at center. Could the Steelers do better? Yes, and it's the media's assumption that Stapleton will be that center of the future. He's a bit small to be playing guard, but he held his own against Jacksonville. If that was Marcus Stroud he was going against, I think we could all be ecstatic. But Stapleton did hold his own. He scratches and claws and gets the job done. I just worry about him against the bigger and stronger tackles that beat Kendall Simmons up over the years. We shall see.