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WESA Talking Steelers: offense seeks swiftness, fans not Swifties

A football player walks through a crowd.
Gene J. Puskar
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward runs through a gantlet of young fans as he arrives for the NFL football team's training camp workout in Latrobe, Pa., Thursday, July 27, 2023.

After stacking two straight wins, the Steelers were humbled in Houston this past Sunday, 30-6. A pivotal AFC North game awaits this Sunday at 1 p.m. as the division-leading Baltimore Ravens come to town. A win puts the 2-2 Steelers in first place in the division.

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.

Jeremy Scott: did a study on how many Taylor Swift fans there are per NFL team. The Steelers ranked dead last on that list. First of all, how much does that surprise you? And is Jim Wexell himself a Swiftie?

Jim Wexell: Yeah. I don't know much about Taylor Swift. I guess I'm surprised Pittsburgh is dead last. I mean, it's not that cosmopolitan, but it's not that not cosmopolitan. I mean, it's pop culture, and Pittsburgh has its share of pop culture. So it does surprise me that they're dead last. But I'm kind of proud of that. As for the Swift thing myself, I really don't know any of the songs. I don't know anything about her. And I'm a rock 'n' roll snob. I listen to [WESA's] sister station WYEP. So, not too much Taylor Swift on that channel. But please don't get the Swiftie crowd after me.

Scott: Since you're an old rock 'n' roll guy, we'll have to make you a mix tape or something like that you could put on your Walkman.

Wexell: I don't know how much I would listen to it, but I'd give it a dab just in case I have to answer questions about it later.

Scott: Well, Jim, I didn't want to talk about offensive coordinator Matt Canada this week, but he's starting to become a name known to even non-sports fans. So I feel like we'd be remiss in our duties if we didn't bring it up. What a week it's been for him. I mean, during the broadcast of last Sunday's game, the commentator for CBS said during the production meeting they have with the coaches, Canada told the broadcast team the Steelers offense isn't built to come from behind. Then yesterday, during his news conference, he played the 'media-twisted-my-words' card. What do you believe really happened there?

Wexell: Probably a combination of both. You know that offense is not built to come from behind. So what I heard on the broadcast was true. It didn't faze me in the least. And then the storm, the tempest grew. Yeah, you don't say things like that, but it's true. The offense is terrible and I'm sure he takes accountability for a lot of it. It's also possible Matt could have come through with a word-salad that was close to what we heard. And I just don't think it's that bad of a faux pas. I don't. I think it's easily rectified with one touchdown drive on the opening series Sunday.

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Scott: You had an exclusive interview this week at Steel City Insider with veteran defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, in which Heyward more or less gave you the 'coaches coach, players play' speech. Running back Najee Harris pretty much said the same thing during his media time this week. Now it's tough to tell tone over text. You were there. Reading between the lines, is this all company speak, or does the locker room truly believe in this coaching staff?

Wexell: Both of those guys truly believe in this coaching staff, in my opinion. And both of those guys were honest in their commentary. And also I think they might have felt the need to say it in case others were not believing. So I can't say the entire locker room's buying in, but the leaders are saying the right thing. Not a surprise. There has to be accountability for the way they're playing. You just can't put it all on the coaches. It seems to be something we're doing more in this modern era. I mean, I remember they used to boo quarterbacks in this town. Now, it's all about offensive coordinators. And there's something to it. Offensive coordination is terrible, but the players are playing horribly. So everybody needs to take accountability. That's what pro athletes are taught and that's what they're doing right now and it's good to see.

Scott: Let's talk a little bit more about that phenomenon, because you said that quarterbacks used to be the ones booed and nobody really cared who was coordinating the offense. But now there's been more of a shift towards blaming the offensive coordinator as opposed to the players on the field. Do you believe that's because we live in a 24/7 social media world where people can access quotes and information at the touch of a button? What exactly do you attribute that to?

Wexell: Maybe it's growing sophistication in the use of video and the understanding of schemes by [for example] a former high school football player who studied film earnestly when he was a player and wants to become a sportswriter. Now, as long as he knows how to cut up the video and present it as a .gif, he can do all of that. And that is illuminating for all of us, especially those of us who were raised on gathering quotes and little nuggets of historical minutia to become sportswriters. It's changing.

So we're more edified to a degree, but also, I think some of it might have to do with Kenny Pickett being a Pitt guy and such a likable young guy. It may have something to do with that. But you go back to their first T-formation quarterback, Jim Finks, I mean, I roamed through the historical archives all the time looking for nuggets, for a book. Jim Finks just yelling at fans from the huddle, Bobby Layne being booed and Ernie Stautner ripping the fans of Pittsburgh and on and on and on. We know about Bradshaw being cheered as he was helped off the field during an injury. I mean, they weren't cheering the fact that he was courageous and they were wishing him the best. They were cheering because he was coming out of the game and Joe Greene went off on the fans for that. And then through the '80s, everybody got booed except, according to the late Tunch Ilkin, everyone but Scotty Campbell, who started one game, didn't finish it and never had the chance to be booed.

But Ben [Roethlisberger] wasn't booed. And when you start your career 16-1 that happens, and then he won two rings and he even after his off the field trouble he was not booed. There might have been minor murmurs of dissatisfaction at times but he was never booed the way all quarterbacks here have been booed. And Kenny hasn't heard it yet either. And, there's good reason with Matt Canada doing so poorly and with Kenny being a local college star.

Scott: Kind of a perfect storm, then.

Wexell: It's going to last for a little while for Kenny, but he's not immune to it. He's got to start producing here.

Scott: Outside the Raiders game — and even that stat line was a little puffed out and misleading because his two interceptions were in addition to giving up over 100 yards to Devante Adams — defensive back Levi Wallace has been torched this year by opposing wide receivers. Pro Football Focus grades Wallace at a 52.7. Second round pick Joey Porter, Jr. is waiting in the wings and has made plays when on the field. But the coaching staff has been really judicious in its distribution of labor with Porter. Reports say the coaching staff is hesitant to give Porter more playing time because of his tackling prowess in the run game, or perhaps lack thereof. Set the story straight, Jim. What gives?

Wexell: I just have a feeling they're waiting for the bye for all of these rookies. I mean, an injury, gives them a chance earlier. But I think [this was] the plan coming in because they felt comfortable with the veterans they have at these positions. And, you know, Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson are really getting torched in the run game. We see the passes they're giving up. But the 70 yard runs went through Levi Wallace, and Patrick Peterson's not much of a tackler either. He's not real physical. And Joey, you would expect him to be a much more physical tackler. I just think they're going to let these veterans remain on the job and then reassess at the bye week. I see no reason that Joey Porter is being held back, other than it's not his time yet.

Scott: Patrick Peterson made bulletin board headlines today for the Ravens, calling rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers a munchkin. Do you expect Flowers to go off on Sunday?

Wexell: This is the first time I'm hearing that. And I really like Patrick Peterson, and I wish he'd stop being so careless on his podcast. I'm assuming that's where he said it — the podcast he does with Bryant McFadden. Zay Flowers, I don't know that he has the gravitas to burn the Steelers, but he is a good rookie and he is a munchkin, but he is quick and slithery. And Patrick Peterson should have learned by now to keep his mouth shut. Things aren't going all great for Patrick Peterson. I'm not as down on him as everybody else seems to be. But it would be wise of him to quiet. Button up a little bit. Zay flowers is a good looking rookie.

Scott: Ravens' quarterback Lamar Jackson is 1-2 lifetime against the Steelers. I'm just going to ask you flat out, Jim. Does he make it 2-2 on Sunday?

Wexell: I think so. I can't see any other way. With Diontae Johnson out, we're seeing Calvin Austin is raw and has his negatives. And with Pat Freiermuth out, we're going to see more Darnell Washington and I presume Connor Heyward, who is not much of a second blocker. Hopefully he can be used in his niche role as a pass catcher. But I mean, we're really digging down deep for some talent. With Cam Heyward out the middle of the defense is being exposed.

The inside linebackers haven't played as well as we expected when they were brought here in free agency. The strong safety Keanu Neal isn't playing as well as we expected. A lot of stress on the free safety, Minkah [Fitzpatrick]. His corners aren't playing that well. You worry about the lack of talent and you worry about it more with these injuries because now the offensive line, the right guard is [Nate] Herbig and he's a quality reserve. And the left tackle is Broderick Jones. You would assume he's a quality reserve. It's his first start. He's the first round draft pick.

Behind him, now we're starting to look at Dylan Cook and seventh round pick Spencer Anderson. Dylan Cook was an undrafted free agent out of Northern Montana. So jeez, I mean, we're getting down into some inexperienced people and the Ravens know this is for first place. And Lamar Jackson, like you said, hasn't had great success against the Steelers. But I don't think we've seen Lamar Jackson at his best yet, especially if Odell Beckham is going to play and he's limited. But you still have Zay Flowers, and you still have Mark Andrews and that great running game. That's a load. And that defense is going to be ready. You know, Marlon Humphrey's back. He's limited, too. They have good safeties and excellent inside linebackers and big men up front and a pass rusher. So it's going to be really difficult for the Steelers.

We talked last week about the emotional flat spot that I expected in Houston and it came to pass, and in waves. So I didn't expect it that emotionally flat. But I expect a bounce back and high emotions this week. I just don't think they have the talent. So I'm going to pick the Ravens here.

Scott: Real quick, Jim, we learned that Jim Wexell is not a Swiftie, doesn't really know much of her music. We did learn that Jim likes rock 'n' roll. In a word, or two words, or three words or however many words it takes, greatest rock 'n' roll band of all time, before we wrap this up?

Wexell: My favorite, I'll go with the Allman Brothers Band and I can throw The Kinks in there. I'm a bit of a contrarian, so I don't want to say The Rolling Stones, things like that, but those have been my two all-time favorites. Last show I went to is the Bones of J.R. Jones at Club Cafe. So I love the modern rock scene, too.

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).