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WESA Talking Steelers: 'Walker' fan handed walking papers; prepping for Pitt grad Donald

A football player in yellow and blue runs onto the field.
Ryan Sun
Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald takes the field during an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif.

Jeremy Scott: They're rested, rejuvenated and healthy for the most part. The Pittsburgh Steelers, coming off their bye week, are on their way west to Los Angeles to face the Rams this Sunday at 4:05 p.m.

Jim Wexell writes for Steel City Insider and has been a Steelers beat writer since 1995, and he joins us. Jim, thanks as always.

Jim Wexell: Oh, you're welcome, Jeremy.

Scott: Jim, the 'Fire Canada' chants have gotten out of hand. Don't know if you saw the clip from the Pat McAfee Show this morning, but they were broadcasting from the Ohio State University campus, and the 'Fire Canada' chant broke out there. This follows appearances at the [Pittsburgh] Penguins home opener, and even a Buffalo Bills tailgate that was not even before a game involving the Steelers. Is the whole 'Fire Canada' phenomenon just kind of a running joke at this point?

Wexell: Well, it's kind of a snowball because people show it and then other people want to be a part of it. And really, we're demeaning the humanity of the poor guy. It's sad. It really is. It's sad.

Scott: Jim, the bye week seemed to serve its purpose for the Steelers, for the most part. They're getting back wide receiver Diontae Johnson, punter Pressley Harvin, the Third, guard James Daniels, and perhaps most notably left tackle Dan Moore, Jr. Rookie first round draft pick Broderick Jones started against the Ravens and seemed to acquit himself well in Dan Moore's absence. And that led to clamors from Steelers Nation for Jones to remain the starter going forward. But the plan's always kind of been for Jones to sit and learn behind Moore this year and for Jones to ease his way into the starting lineup. He got a taste of starting in the NFL against a pretty stout defense, and a rival defense at that. And now he heads back to the bench. Does the coaching staff kind of see this as a perfect storm for Jones, getting that experience but not having to be thrown too much into the fire?

Wexell: And there's so much we could talk about this particular topic. You know, Broderick played very well against the Ravens, and Jadeveon Clowney, to me, looked washed up. And then the next week, Clowney has two sacks. So is Broderick Jones that good that he's making decent players look like they're washed up? I don't know. He still has trouble with the inside moves. If people would watch that, it's a danger spot.

The other problem — I don't know. I don't know what I don't know. And that is what the Steelers coaches know about his assignment. The confidence that he'll carry out the assignment at left tackle. You can get people hurt badly. You can get valuable people hurt badly if you blow an assignment at left tackle. So those are a couple of things. And again, I don't know what I don't know. Maybe he's brilliant. Another problem: Dan Moore cannot play right tackle, for whatever reason. I remember Flozell Adams came here in 2010, could not play right tackle for the longest time until he got acclimated to it. Dan has really struggles at right tackle. Broderick does well at right tackle. He says he's more comfortable at left tackle, but he has no problem at right tackle. He said that.

And so you have Broderick being able to play both positions. And I used to say this to Trai Essex all the time; because he could play five positions, they didn't want to start him at one. And, you know, Trai was not the first round pick Broderick Jones is. But I think there might be something to that where Broderick gives them the better righty, lefty, whichever guy gets hurt, he can step in.

Scott: The swing tackle.

Wexell: That's exactly right. Dan Moore is not the swing tackle. Chuks [Okorafor] has tried to play left tackle and he failed when he tried out for that position a couple of years ago. And that's how Dan Moore got the start. So there are many threads there. I may be overthinking it because Broderick Jones sure looked good against Baltimore.
Scott: Yeah, he really did. And that's why I think a lot of people were kind of clamoring, like I said, for him to get the start. But, as we've mentioned, that is always been the plan for him to kind of move along slowly. And just as a side note to that, former defensive tackle Chris Hoke went on another radio show this week and said Mike Tomlin does not believe in "Wally Pipping" guys, meaning the guy can't lose his starting position because of injury. Is there merit to that?

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Wexell: Well, you know, I asked Dan Moore that exact question. I didn't use Wally Pipp. I should have. That's a good one. Dan said he doesn't necessarily believe in that. And then Tomlin was asked about it at the press conference, and he said it depends. He doesn't use that as a blanket mantra, if you will. Chris Hoke knows. Chris is a smart guy, so I'm going to trust him on this. Mike Tomlin [generally] believes veterans don't lose their jobs because of injuries. So I'll take that as a general belief in how Mike Tomlin coaches. But Mike has said at the press conference that there are specific instances where he'll change on that.

Scott: I wanted to talk to you today about [wide receiver] Gunner Olszewski after what happened during the Ravens game in which he nearly fumbled away the game, literally. And then the news came down just a little bit before you and I started doing this conversation that the Steelers released Olszewski. And this was not the only blunder he had this year. He fielded a kick that should have gone out of bounds that cost the Steelers roughly 30 yards of field position against the Browns. And we go back to last year when he let a punt bounce off of his facemask against the Patriots. So I'm wondering what took so long for the Steelers to release Olszewski.

Wexell: Well, they don't do anything until they absolutely have to. And if somebody were to have gotten injured in practice this week, as Pat Freiermuth did, then, you know, perhaps Gunner finds a way to stay.

But you're right. I mean, he was he was dead man walking all week because ironically, the guy who made the tackle on his fumble — it looked like the Ravens had a clear touchdown rolling — Hot Rod Williams, tight end they called up who was also the guy who recovered the safety, if you recall, almost was a touchdown. He willed his way to make that tackle. He went through a couple of blockers and pushed that guy out of bounds. And then Joey Porter, Jr. got an interception a couple of plays later. So Rod Williams saved Gunner and now he's forcing him off because of how Rod played so well on special teams and he's an interesting, talented tight end, and keeping four tight ends wouldn't have been too much of a reach, especially if you can play special teams the way Hot Rod showed he was and he can get deep.

He was a wide receiver in college, so he's a skinny tight end. He swears to us that he can block in line. I really haven't paid attention to his inline blocking, but he says he can. But he is a deep threat as a tight end to a degree. Very interesting prospect, very well-liked by the team. They all love to call him Hot Rod. And and ironically, Pat Freiermuth gets hurt. And that sealed the fact that Rodney Williams sticks with the team, because now they actually need the third tight end. And Freiermuth isn't injured enough to go on injured reserve to open up another spot. So yeah, I think Gunner was destined for this. If it all broke well, he could have stayed, but it broke the opposite for him and he is out. I'll miss Gunner personally. We had some similar music interests, so I always like to talk to him about Ryan Bingham, but no more.

Scott: I was going to ask if Gunner was a Kinks fan.

Wexell: [laughs] He's a young kid. You know, I'm the old guy in a locker room with the kids. But I do listen to the new bands, and I don't know if you watch "Yellowstone," but Ryan Bingham is Walker on Yellowstone. He plays guitar every now and then. When he's not getting in fights with Rip. His star is rising. He was a very good musician, known to some people before Yellowstone. And now he's really becoming well-known. And Gunner and I used to talk about his songs. And so I'm going to miss Gunnar for that.

Scott: You mentioned Freiermuth and the fact that they thought that they were going to be getting him back after the bye week. We went through the list of guys they are getting back. And then he seemed to be healthy. He said to reporters earlier this week he would be healthy to play against the Rams this Sunday. Then Thursday it seemed like that hamstring that was bothering him, that kept him out for a couple of games flared up again on him. And now he's not looking like he'll be available for the Rams and, potentially, after that. How severe is that injury? You mentioned the fact that he isn't injured enough to go on IR, but all reports indicate the Rams game isn't the only one he's going to miss going forward.

Wexell: Right, and hamstrings, you never know. Because you can't feel it hindering you until you go all out. And if you go all out and then it reinjures, then you're set back another couple of weeks and that could happen again for him. I remember [former wide receiver] Yancey Thigpen, the year after his great season. Couldn't get rid of that nagging hamstring. You know, they tried different diets. They do everything for that. So Pat was very excited.

And I talked to Alfredo Roberts, the tight ends coach, the week before, during the bye week, and he said he expects Freiermuth to come back with his hair on fire because he had had some nagging injuries early in the season that were holding him back a little bit. And they were expecting Pat [to come back] and so was Pat. Pat agreed he was ready. And when he re-injured it, he cussed loudly and walked off the field and you knew what happened had to be the hamstring and you don't know whether he is that mad because he was that hurt or because it's just another nagging problem that's going to keep him out of this game.

So I can't really tell how hurt it is, but it's a loss. It's a loss. Although they do have a rookie who, same as Broderick Jones, was getting better each week. Darnell Washington's getting better each week. Connor Heyward is another quality target. I don't know how much blocking he'll give them. Not that Pat Freiermuth gave them all that much, but Connor Heyward's another nice target and the aforementioned Hot Rod Williams now perhaps gets some snaps on offense.

Scott: Any chance they bring back Zach Gentry? He signed to the Bengals practice squad, but of course they could, if they wanted to, bring him back. Any talk of that? Any chatter of bringing back Gentry or are they comfortable with what they have?

Wexell: I think they're going to go with what they have. But, you know, if there's one more injury, Zach left on good terms. He didn't burn any bridges. He's well-regarded here. Everybody liked Zach. Zach's the one that gave Hot Rod his nickname. I don't know if any Hot Rod ever really needs anyone to bequeath that nickname, but he credits Zach Gentry and everybody misses Zach. So no, it would not be out of the question at all.

Scott: Wasn't there a basketball player for the Cavs, Hot Rod Williams?

Wexell: Mm hmm. Yeah. We asked the new Hot Rod whether he had ever heard of Hot Rod Williams for the Cavaliers, and he said no. But he had been told about him. He didn't know of him as an athlete at all. They're kids. [laughs]

Scott: You're not the only one feeling like an old guy right now, Jim.

Wexell: Yeah. [laughs]

Scott: Before we turn our attention to the upcoming matchup, I wanted to ask about one other position, and that's inside linebacker. Over the offseason, they overhauled that room. They brought in Cole Holcomb, they brought in Elandon Roberts, both of whom were supposed to be the big splash signings. And yet it's been Kwon Alexander, who they brought in on just a one year deal, who I feel, just passing my eye test, has made the biggest impact. He made some splash plays against the Ravens. He contained Lamar Jackson as much as you can possibly contain Lamar Jackson. Any chance that he's brought back kind of like Larry Ogunjobi, where it was a prove it deal last year, then he got a longer term signing? Any chance that happens next year for Kwon Alexander?

Wexell: Oh, sure. If he sustains what he's doing. I mean, he took down that screen pass. It was a five yard loss. That's all the Ravens threw to their backfield in the second half and he smelled that out and yeah he dogged Lamar Jackson and the others played well too and Cole Holcomb broke up a big play at midfield late on a wide receiver so he was downfield in coverage and he's the three-down guy. He gets the messages from the [defensive] coordinator and calls the plays, and makes sure everybody knows what they're doing. So he's pretty valuable himself and Elandon Roberts blew up a couple run plays. He's an inline plugger in a Vince Williams mold, so they liked him against the Ravens.

But I said to Kwon I said, Kwon, the way the Rams use three wide receivers all the time, this game is made for you. You got to be starting, right? He goes, 'We'll see. It's made for everybody.' You know, he's a team guy. 'Made for everybody. Everybody's playing well right now,' so he wouldn't bite on that. But I would look for Kwon to get more playing time in this game.

Scott: All right. So looking ahead to the Rams, the first guy you think of when you think of the Rams is on defense. You think about the University of Pittsburgh grad, you think of Aaron Donald, the surefire future first ballot Hall of Famer. Been in the league since 2014. Is he still what he was?

Wexell: Well, I haven't watched the Rams, so I apologize for that. I just assume he is what he was. I mean, Rams only have around 10 sacks. So I don't know whether he's surrounded by guys that just aren't getting the job done or whether, in fact, he has lost some. But I'm going to assume he hasn't lost any. And the interior of the Steelers is worrisome. And I talked to Mason Cole and I talked to James Daniels. They both say that Aaron Donald is the best out there, the best either of them has ever played. Cole's gone against him six times. This will be his seventh time. I asked him if he had any success stories or horror stories, and he said, mostly horror stories, I believe that. And wouldn't say anything stupid before playing Aaron Donald. But I do believe Aaron Donald has had his way with Mason Cole. And James Daniels and other guys are coming back from injury. Is he playing as well as they need the interior to play? Isaac Seumalo is starting to play better, as advertised. The two guys that Aaron Donald's going to line up over most of the time are the two guys who worry me.

Scott: On the other side of the ball for the Rams, you've got a killer trio of wide receivers, not only Cooper Kupp, but Tutu Atwell, who's been in the league for a couple of years, and the rookie sensation Puka Nacua. Now, the Steelers defensive backs have not been all that spectacular this year. Is this the door to getting Joey Porter, Jr. more snaps?

Wexell: Absolutely. If not starting and playing the entire game. Puka is a match up for him. He's an outside guy. Cooper Kupp is an inside guy and he's a more shifty, agile guy which suits Patrick Peterson better. They also are without their two running backs. They have practice squad guys and a sixth round pick, a rookie, as their running backs. So they are going to stick with their three wide receiver offense and that means the Steelers will match them with dime, which means Patrick Peterson plays inside and Joey — Joey plays in the dime. Before last game, that's what Joey's only job was.

But then Joey started the second series of the second half and finished that Ravens game and also had the big pick. So even though the coaches weren't going to crown him, you had to believe he was going to, if not start, play the majority of the snaps outside in the base defense. And now that they're probably going to go dime quite a bit, that opens the door for Joey to play all day for sure. They just don't want to commit to Joey full time because if he's having a bad day, they still they can go to Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace. Veterans.

If, say, Joey's, you know, I'll just use Cooper Kupp as an example. I don't think the match up is going to be right there today. But Cooper Kupp just killing him, nine, 10 catches, first half, whatever, something really outrageous, they would pull Joey. So they've already told him that they would. It's going to depend on who the hot hand is, is what they're saying. So that would guard his confidence to a degree to know that this was no surprise to get pulled. So they want him to be ready to, if you're playing a great game, we're going to keep you in there, kid. So they're not committing to him as a starter. And I think that's what's angering a lot of the fans. But I mean, I can't see anyone else playing, really.

Scott: You've got to go back to the end of the Carter administration to find the only time the Steelers ever beat the Rams in Los Angeles. And of course, that's taking into account the fact that the Rams were the St. Louis Rams for a while and the Steelers had some success in St. Louis against the Rams. But we're talking about Super Bowl XIV, which was played in Pasadena. Where were you when that happened, Jim?

Wexell: Oh, my goodness. I was at Clarion University. That was where I went my freshman year before I transferred. So I watched that game there. I was a freshman in college. It was a bar, I think. It wasn't a student union, but I think it was a bar. Good game.

Scott: Yeah. Great game. And are we going to see the first time that the Steelers have ever beaten the Rams in the regular season in Los Angeles this Sunday, or is the trend going to hold?

Wexell: Wow. Asking me a prediction question without asking me for my prediction.

Scott: Hey, you know, call it however you want to call it.

Wexell: Yeah, well, I think the Steelers are going to play at an emotional pitch. I think you're going to see the best they have. Whether Kenny Pickett can outscore Matthew Stafford is in question. Matthew Stafford's a good quarterback, but without a running game, I'm going to have to lean to the Steelers. I'm going to have to lean to the Steelers. And that's rare for me this year. I've been picking against them, except that opener against the 49ers. They have to block Aaron Donald, of course, and, you know, put pressure on Matthew Stafford. TJ Watt said he's okay. So if they can pressure Stafford, they can win this game. Kenny's got to complete. He's got to throw some TD passes. And with D.J. [Diontae Johnson] back, that's going to help a lot.

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).