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WESA Talking Steelers: Cam comes back, Canada comes down, and Watt's the deal with Pittsburgh food?

A man in a Steelers jersey 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.

They wouldn't be the Steelers if they didn't make 60,000 hearts collectively palpitate before ultimately winning a game. And they were true to form Thursday night, taking down the Tennessee Titans 20-16 in dramatic fashion.

Now, the Steelers have a 10-day layoff before the Green Bay Packers come to town Nov. 12. Jim Wexell, our Steelers expert, writes for Steel City Insider and has been a Steelers beat writer since 1995.

Jeremy Scott: Jim, before we get into football stuff, Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt's brother, the future Hall of Famer himself, J.J. Watt, went on Twitter this week and started singing the praises of Sarris chocolate-covered pretzels. Then last night, J.J. was spotted up in the press box of Acrisure, holding a box of said pretzels. In a word, what is Jim Wexell's go-to with Sarris?

Jim Wexell: Oh, man, I love it all. I really do. I don't have a particular go-to. I wish I could think of something smart to say, but no, I do not. But I like that JJ is becoming a Yinzer. I like that.

Scott: He not only namedropped Sarris, he also namedropped Giant Eagle.

Wexell: And didn't he do some Primanti talk, too?

Scott: Yeah, at some point he did do that.

Wexell: T.J. might be saying 'Hey, look, man, this is all my advertising potential here. What are you doing?' JJ, you know, he's got quite a personality. And he could fit right into this town.

Scott: Well, I tell you, if if some Yinzers had their way, he would not only be a spokesperson for the products of the town, he would also be on the field in this town, coming out of retirement.

Wexell: This Yinzer was one of them calling for it. So I can't laugh at those people.

Scott: Too funny. Too funny. Well, Jim, when we spoke last week before the Jacksonville game, I told you I thought it would be prudent for [defensive lineman] Cam Heyward to be activated for last night's game. But the consensus among the pundits was Cam wouldn't be ready to go until next Sunday for the Packers. Well, he not only played, but he played well. My rationale for activating him for last night was, the Steelers were facing a modern day Earl Campbell in the form of Derrick Henry and would need all the tackling help they could get, especially along the defensive line. Was that the rationale of the coaching staff in activating Cam? Am I right to take a victory lap here, Jim?

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Wexell: Well, you're right. They did activate him, and I thought they would wait the 10 days until Green Bay, but I don't know that the coaching staff really had any say in it. You know, he's Cam. That's his unit. When he's ready, he plays when he wants to. And, you know, the doctors passed him, so I don't know that there was rationale involved or thinking, but you could be right. You know, that makes perfect sense. You stop Derrick Henry. And then you pressure the rookie quarterback and you should win. Pretty much that's what they did. And Cam made the first tackle of the game and he sniffed out a screen, a big screen. I believe it was a third down play. That brought up the fourth down that they missed on. So yeah, played very well. Emotional leader, inspiration to everybody.

Scott: Now, with that being said, you bring up an interesting point: You said it's Cam's unit and he can play when he wants to. Does a guy like Cam Heyward have that sort of autonomy? Does Mike Tomlin give Cam Heyward that autonomy to where he says 'I want to play,' so therefore he is playing? Or, how is that balance of power in the locker room?

Wexell: Well, like I say, I mean, Mike Tomlin wants him to play, right. So I don't know that they even have to. I don't know that Cam has to argue with him. Unless he wasn't fully healthy, then there would be an argument. But that's Cam's job. He's not going to lose it. It's not like he's [offensive tackle] Chuks Okorafor or anything.

Scott: Well, speaking of, you can take a minor victory lap of your own here. You said Broderick Jones was being touted and looked at as the right tackle of, if not the future, the very near future. He slid in and did start over the aforementioned Chukwuma Okorafor and the running game looked the best it has all season. Has Broderick Jones officially supplanted Okorafor for the rest of the 2023 season?

Wexell: It's analogous to what happened to [cornerback] Joey Porter, Jr. Joey Porter comes in the second series of the second half, and starts in the base defense the entire rest of the half and makes the game-turning interception. Yet nobody would say he's the starter, but they just kept starting him. It was inevitable. And you have to think the same thing with Broderick Jones. He didn't just keep the pressure off the quarterback. He was downfield making big blocks on linebackers at the second level on key long runs. He was doing a lot for the run game and boy, that's what they need.

Like you said, it was the best of the year and so I can't imagine him losing his job. You know, Marvel Smith — who was the same No. 77 — Marvel Smith was a left tackle coming out of college, drafted in the second round. He started as a right tackle and then moved over after left tackle became open. So, you know, Dan Moore just isn't a good right tackle. He's an average left tackle and he's good enough. And the coaches like his demeanor. And Ben Roethlisberger loves his demeanor and his grit and his will — his toughness. So it's better to do it this way.

You want your better guy at left tackle. But if Moore can't play the right side and Broderick can, I think you got to do it this way. And Chuks was the third best clearly the last couple of weeks. So the move was a great move. You know, it's it's hard for coaches to make the moves with a veteran starter and a rookie coming in. And a lot of good coaches will say, 'I'll let the question answer itself.' And it usually does with an injury, and then boom.

Well, it wasn't happening with Broderick. And finally Tomlin said, 'I can't do this anymore.' Like look at nose tackle last night. I mean, Montravious Adams was injured early and he had been playing okay. But Keeanu Benton, who is a big man, collapses the interior of that pocket and on pass downs. And he really showed a lot again last night. So that's how it happens for most rookies. The questions answer themselves. And finally, Tomlin had to push. He had to make the answer. And it was a good move.

Scott: Well, and the story behind Okorafor's benching has really been interesting, what's come out since it came out that he was going to be benched. He actually told reporters he was benched because of something he said during the Jacksonville game, on the field, and that was the coaching staff's rationale for benching him last night. Do you buy that narrative?

Wexell: No. I mean, Broderick Jones almost cost them the game with his unsportsmanlike penalty after an extra point. Do you think that is going to matter next week? No, no. Chuks was struggling and if it's true, it was the excuse Tomlin was looking for. Perhaps he blew up at him on the sideline. So, you know, Chuks can look at it however he wants. I don't know if he's the swing tackle, but he's a reserve. I would bet money on it. I haven't heard anything. It has to be. It just has to be.

Scott: I am going to again pound the table for an extension of [linebacker] Kwon Alexander, because Kwon Alexander once again stepped up and made the biggest splash play of the night: the game-winning interception. He just brings a different element to the linebacking corps and really to the defense that they haven't seen — I'm going to say it — since Ryan Shazier. Somebody who's that athletic, can cover sideline-to-sideline, and stop mobile quarterbacks. You can put him in and make him a spy on people like Lamar Jackson. What will it take for the Steelers to extend Kwon Alexander?

Wexell: He just has to maintain good health. You are aware this is his last year of his contract? I am not aware.

Scott It was a one-year 'prove it' deal.

Wexell: Okay. Sounds great to me. I mean, he's an injection of energy in every way. And as you said, I don't remember any mistakes, especially in coverage. You know, the big tackle for loss on the screen play against the Ravens and this big pick. And at a time where they really need him because [linebacker] Cole Holcomb's now out for the year, and Cole was playing pretty well. Cole is their signal caller. Cole is their coverage backer.

Now Kwon gives them coverage ability and Elandon Roberts is more of a run stuffer. Landon Roberts is I think, a better Vince Williams. Same kind of player. He seems to be more of a sure tackler and he is supposedly, according to Pro Football Focus, number one in the run stop. When he makes a hit, they go down and so and he did that last night at a key moment — I believe it was second and four — and he stuffed Derrick Henry about midfield brought third and four. That's when I think Cam got the screen and sniffed that out next. So Elandon Roberts played well but yes Kwon is an injection in the locker room. He's a cool guy to talk to. I wouldn't call him eloquent. He is fun. He's a fun dude and he he speaks in short sentences, but they're always full of energy and he's a fun dude. He attracts me. I'm drawn to players like that. And especially after games.

Scott: You brought up the injury to Cole Holcomb, which apparently was so serious. I was at the stadium, so I didn't get to see this myself, but apparently on the broadcast they said it was so severe they weren't going to replay what happened. What happens now? Are they going to find someone who's on the streets right now? Do they feel good about inserting Mark Robinson into that middle linebacker spot? What happens with Cole Holcomb's roster spot? Who fills it?

Wexell: Well, they have Elandon Roberts and Kwon. Those two were kind of alternating according to matchups and Elandon you figured would get more playing time against Derrick Henry and so those two, I don't know who's going to be the signal caller. I'm going to guess Elandon since he's been here with the team longer and maybe has a better understanding, but Kwon's going to be out there all three downs, I assume, because of his coverage skills. And you also have Keanu Neal getting the hang of that third safety in the dime.

So there's some inside linebacker, and Mark Robinson, he's got to be champing at the bit. This is a young guy who has paid his dues. They've gotten him in every now and then. But it's time and he should be ready. I'm excited about seeing more Mark Robinson. Sorry to be at the expense of Cole Holcomb. He's a good dude and a good player.

Scott: They brought offensive coordinator Matt Canada from the booth down to the sidelines last night, and one might argue it had a positive effect. How much did bringing him down from the box to the sideline affect what they did on offense?

Wexell: Well, I have a hard time buying that. You can talk to Chuks about these little things. When everybody was really ripping on Matt, and I came to criticize him myself, but I stuck to the line that it's the Jimmies and the Joes, not the X's and O's. It's the players. So I'm going to stick to that. Now, it looks like people are maybe overpraising him. I've got to say, last night's success on the ground and some of the late passes Kenny made. The offense still struggled some. You know, Kenny still struggled some. I don't know if it was the ribs. I don't know what it is with him. He misses some of these easy throws. But I'm not going to give Matt and his geography much credit. If it helps Pickett, okay. I don't know. I have no idea.

Scott: What's the status with Minkah Fitzpatrick? Of course he injured his hamstring during the Jacksonville game. Didn't play last night, but they haven't put him on injured reserve. What is his status going forward? Will we see him play against Green Bay?

Wexell: Well, I said we wouldn't see Cam. And so I was wrong about that. And you're right. Minkah wasn't put on IR, so you assume it's less than four games. And so that gives us all optimism. Will he play against Green Bay? I don't know. Hamstrings are funny, you know, as we saw with Pat Freiermuth, you can't tell if it's healed until you go all out. And if you go all out, you risk snapping it again. So, that will be the test next week. I'm going to assume he's going to be tested next week. So that'll be interesting. And I don't know that Jordan Love of the Packers who's struggling as quarterback there, they're 2-5. I don't know that I would rush Minkah back for a must-win game to diagnose Jordan Love, but again it'll be it'll be up to the player.

Scott: The Steelers do have what they call what the industry terms a "mini bye" now. And now that they've played the Thursday night game they won't play again for ten days. What happens during that mini bye? How does a mini bye compared to a regular bye when you have all that time off, a full two weeks? You have ten days with this mini bye. What happens during this mini bye helps with the preparation for the next game? Do players leave town during this mini bye? Do they tend to stick around? What exactly goes on?

Wexell: Well, I left town and at the airport I saw somebody from the PR department leaving town. Yes. Players are leaving town, too, no doubt, because this is a mini bye. And you make your family plans, your friends. You promised somebody I'll get out to see you either on a bye week or one of our Thursday night games. And so yeah, they get out of town and Mike Tomlin calls them all up and says 'Hey, don't be that guy.' I was standing with a reporter one time before their bye week and he was giving him the 'Don't be that guy' speech. And the guy who was going away to Charlotte said, 'Damn, because I was planning on being that guy.' And so he gives them the speech. He tries to tell them don't be doing anything stupid because we're coming back to work Monday.

So I assume they'll get an extra practice in Monday. Perhaps the union won't allow it. I don't know. But they'll get in there, get their good lifts and they'll get work on their body, they'll get their massages, they'll watch a lot of film, they'll meet. It'll be a full day, a much more full day. Even if they can't get on the field, maybe they get a little walkthrough in or something. But it gets them off and running in the week. So then Wednesday begins the normal practice week with game planning.

Scott: The Green Bay Packers are next on the docket. We'll talk more about the Packers and how you scout them over this next week, next Friday. But with the Packers coming to town, real quick, finish the sentence, Jim Wexell, the best kind of cheese is [blank].

Wexell: Wine. Wine and cheese.

Scott: Oh, no, I said the best kind of cheese.

Wexell: Okay. Well, I thought you were looking for a line.

Scott: No, no, no. I'm actually asking you your favorite kind of cheese here.

Wexell: Man, I like all cheese. I'm going to go with goat cheese right now because I think I'm going to have a salad with goat cheese on it.

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).