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WESA Talking Steelers: Will plane problems mean turbulence in Houston?

A football player runs with the ball.
Mark J. Terrill
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett rolls out during an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, in Las Vegas.

The Steelers beat the Raiders on the road for the first time since 1995 this past Sunday night — albeit it was in Vegas and not in Oakland — but the black and gold next heads to Houston to face a young-but-talented Texans team this Sunday at 1 p.m. Jim Wexell writes for Steel City Insider and has been a Steelers beat writer since 1995. Wexell joined WESA's Jeremy Scott to talk about the last game and the upcoming one.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jeremy Scott: Jim, preparation for the upcoming game actually started in a grounded airplane in Kansas City. Now, for those who don't know the story, the Steelers were on their way home from Vegas when they to emergency land in KC because of an oil pressure issue in the engine. It didn't sound serious at first, with the Steelers PR team getting out in front of the reports by saying everyone was safe and that the team would be coming home soon. But quarterback Kenny Pickett this week during his news conference said guys on the plane were freaking out. At least some of them were. From tales you've been told from those who were on that plane, just how close were they to disaster?

Jim Wexell: Well, I haven't heard any tales of horror. I talked to [Steelers radio color analyst] Craig Wolfley. He was writing for Steel City Insider. And I asked him to give me his thoughts when he was awakened and told there was engine trouble. And he said that he trusted the crew and he was a little nervous. And then they got to Kansas City and gave him donuts and breakfast pizza. And so all was well with him.

So I don't think he had much in the way of horror stories. I know Kenny Pickett said, 'I wish they wouldn't have woken me up.' And so I think the more horror story is that maybe the use of the bathroom, because they were on the tarmac for many hours, five hours, that for football players and those little bathrooms, that could have been a horror story. But the horror story for the coach, I think, is that they got back at 1:30 p.m. to Pittsburgh and had to put off preparations that day.

You know, they played last Monday against Cleveland and had a short week and sustained that emotion on another prime time game, another emotional win. And then they get behind the eight ball with preparation this week against a team with a rookie quarterback who represents that team. The Texans represent the classic letdown spot that this team has encountered over the years. Especially with the Ravens up next. So I worry about the the plane and the late Monday arrival and the short week of preparation on what promises to be a flat week anyway. So that's what I'm concerned about.

Scott: Now, the Raiders game was Kenny Pickett's first in which he threw more than one touchdown pass as a pro. Did we just see him play his best NFL game to date?

Wexell: Yeah, it was his best and his passer rating says that much. It was his first time over 100. We saw some good progress last year and some fourth quarter rallies. This was probably his overall best game. And I don't know, we talked about what I thought might have been a concussion that first series [of the season, against the San Francisco 49ers] and I thought it's a two week thing usually with quarterbacks. And so I expected him to play better. He did. And now he looks like the guy in the preseason. I think now it's back to where he was, base wise, coming into the year and now make progress from there. I think he's going to get better and better.

Scott: On the other side, behind center for the Texans is the second overall pick in this year's NFL draft, C.J. Stroud, who you referenced just a little bit earlier. In Houston's first game, he was sacked five times. They lost. Second game, he was sacked six times. They lost. Their third game, he wasn't sacked even once. The Texans won. Now, Jim, I'm no mathematician, but that doesn't seem like solving for X, with X being the key to victory, is some mysterious method. Does that track for you?

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Wexell: It tracks. And especially with the state of their offensive line, they are not getting their left tackle. Their left tackle is the linchpin. [Laremy] Tunsil. He's the linchpin and he missed last week, so they had to move the left guard over the left tackle and then they had to put Kendrick Green at left guard. And they're already on their backup center and their backup right guard, I believe. I think they only have one starter from last year and he's the right tackle.

I believe they could not possibly be even without him this week. And Tunsil is not coming back this week. So it's a real mess on their offensive line so I understand all the sack issues. Last week was strange. I mean, they were at Jacksonville. Jacksonville, allegedly, has a great defense, but they didn't do the job. So did Houston gain confidence? Did their line and all those backups suddenly improve? I don't know. I can't see Kendrick Green improving that much. And if he's playing again, I know who the Steelers are going to focus on. That's just one aspect of that line I'll focus on. So that's Houston's big problem, is their offensive line.

Scott: And speaking of offensive line, the website Pro Football Focus has become the arbiter of player rankings, however controversial PFF's methodology might be, but they grade players on a scale of 0 to 100. Steelers left tackle Dan Moore, Jr. currently sits at a 29.2. I don't know about you, Jim, but any school I've ever attended, a 29.2 is an F-minus. Any way you chalk it up, what's it going to take for the National Weather Service to issue the proverbial Broderick Jones watch?

Wexell: Yeah, well, I got news: Broderick Jones, again, took more right tackle reps today. He's the backup right tackle and he was in for [starting right tackle] Chuks [Okorafor] with the first team at times. So it doesn't look like that's the move that they're going to make any time in the future. I had thought that Chuks was the weak area.

Now, I respect Pro Football Focus, but I'm not sure they got this right. I do know that Dan Moore has had to block [San Francisco 49ers' defensive lineman Nick] Bosa. And I mean, Chuks has had to as well. Those three monster pass rushers are aliens off the edge, as Mike Tomlin called them. They they switch sides. But the fact that they pretty much held those three in check — I believe they held them without a sack — that speaks a lot. And I'm not trying to put Pro Football Focus down, because at least they're doing more than most media there. They've got eyes on every single one of those [players]. I mean, even when I rewatch a game, I don't rewatch it five times to make sure I got the play right on all five offensive linemen. But they do that. So whether they have real sharp pro type scouts doing it, they at least have football guys who have eyes on it. So there's something to that rating. Yeah.

Scott: I'm going to go back to what you started to talk about earlier in our conversation. You mentioned the preparation and how that's delayed because of the airplane situation coming home. What exactly is hampered by that? I know that some of the players talked about doing some early film study on their team-provided Microsoft Surface tablets and whatnot. But what exactly is hampered by that situation when it comes to preparation?

Wexell: Well, first of all, sleep. Second of all, Monday is treatment day. They come in and they get their massages. They they go into the trainer's room. The bumped and bruised players get their therapy and then they meet on Mondays. Well, that was delayed and I believe Mike Tomlin said they did that Tuesday morning. I could have that wrong, but it was delayed. And then on Wednesday, they pushed practice back to 3 p.m. So, you know, times are moving. The bodies aren't being worked on.

You know, football players are victims of habit. They need their routine. So it knocked them out of their routine. And this was also coming off an emotional late Sunday night game, a West Coast trip. So you're talking about some delayed hours, hours delayed anyway. And so this pushed it back even further. And then previously they played on Monday night. So they were on a short week so they could be, you know, running on vapors to a degree, especially with the Ravens the following week. And so I talked to some of the guys and they vow that there will not be a letdown. I've heard that before. Yeah. And it's a classic letdown. And so that's why I have an issue with the plane. The plane was just another thing on top of all the other problems I foresee.

Scott: Vegas has the Steelers as a 3.5 point favorite, which basically means they're 6.5 point favorites, with the Texans being given three points for home field advantage. Does this, Jim, have all the ingredients of a trap game?

Wexell: Absolutely. And I would be tempted to take those 3.5 points. But I've been wrong now on three consecutive predictions and I have been encouraged by my readers on Steel City Insider to continue to pick them to lose, ergo they win. So I'm going to predict them to lose. Just for half to help the gang out, and for the other half because I see a bad flat spot even though the players say it won't happen.

I mean, I just talked to [defensive back] Desmond King, and he was released by Houston. And I asked him, what does this team need to know about the Houston Texans? He said they need to know it won't be easy. And they do know that. And I asked him, I said, 'Mike Tomlin should have you get up and give the motivational speech.' He goes 'no, we don't need it because everyone here understands how important getting a win here will be.' So we'll find out more about this team.

The demeanor, the attitude, whether they need that constant emotional babysitting that seemed like the Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, teams of that last decade seemed to falter at times. Maybe it was because they knew they could rely on Ben, but they seem to really lose these type of games. So we'll see more about this team. It's a game they should win. And if they do, boy, they'll be 3-1. And then nobody needs to emotionally babysit them to get up for the Ravens the next week.

Jeremy comes to Pittsburgh with a bevy of both commercial and public media experience, and many address changes along the way, including Parkersburg and Martinsburg, WV; Galena, AK; Cambridge and Coshocton, OH; and Peoria, IL. A native of Youngstown, OH, Jeremy is a proud alumnus of Ohio University, which is also where he got his first public radio experience (WOUB in Athens, OH).