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WESA Talking Steelers: return of the pigeons, return of the Muth; Steelers to win easily?

Pittsburgh Steelers' Keanu Neal intercepts a pass intended for Green Bay Packers' Christian Watson.
Gene J. Puskar
Pittsburgh Steelers' Keanu Neal intercepts a pass intended for the Green Bay Packers' Christian Watson during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, in Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh Steelers sit at 6-3 following yet another heart-stopping win — this one, a 24-19 victory over the Green Bay Packers this past Sunday. None of the six wins has been pretty, but the fact is, they are 6-3 and face another 6-3 team on the road this Sunday at 1 p.m. in the form of the Cleveland Browns.

Jim Wexell writes for 247 and has been a Steelers beat writer since 1995.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jeremy Scott: Jim, there's so much football stuff to discuss. But first, I just want to give a special shout-out to the Acrisure Stadium pigeons who made their triumphant return this past Sunday. I know the Steelers' official Facebook page has acknowledged them. Has anyone inside the locker room, in your interactions, ever acknowledged the pigeons? I mean, the Steelers have one of the most notoriously superstitious fan bases. And it seems to me that those pigeons seem to be a good luck charm!

Jim Wexell: Well, I only hear people in the press box talking about it. I haven't taken it down into the locker room. That's a good topic for this week, Jeremy. I'll find out.

Scott: All right. I look forward to looking at your column to see what you come up with for that. The Steelers are 6-3. Not one of those wins has done anything for anyone's lifespan. But as legendary coach Bill Parcells once said, you are what your record says you are. And he also said the most desperate team usually wins in the NFL. Well, the Steelers are on the road against the fellow 6-3 Browns this Sunday. It's 6-3 vs. 6-3. So with both teams sitting there at the same record, which one is actually more desperate?

Wexell: Oh boy. I have to believe the Browns are more desperate, but I don't know if that's going to help them. You know, they lost their quarterback. They had Joe Flacco in today as a tryout. I'm uncertain if Flacco is the starter Sunday. You know? Yeah, that's how bad they are off at the quarterback position with — I'm just going to call him DTR — because he's Dorian Thompson Robinson, I believe. You know, the hyphen names and, you know, when he marries a hyphen lady and then they'll have four hyphens in their name and then everybody will blow a gasket. But he's a fifth-round rookie. And I mean, people are talking about the Steelers being very lucky. But you know, the Steelers didn't trade three number ones and pay $230 million for a bad quarterback and not be able to afford backups. I know Mitch Trubisky has played, and he's a better, I think, backup than he showed when he did play. So the Steelers have three competent quarterbacks, and the Browns now have zero competent quarterbacks. This guy DTR — he started one game. They got beat by the Ravens, 28-3. He only had a couple of hours to prepare. He was only told right before the game that he would start. He's a rookie fifth-rounder, [from] UCLA, and he threw zero touchdown passes and three interceptions just like he threw against Pitt last year in the Sun Bowl, and just like he threw against new Steelers middle linebacker Mykal Walker played against him at Fresno State; threw three interceptions when he was a freshman. He was a six-year COVID guy, with five years of starting at UCLA. And he's still throwing three interceptions at the beginning, at the end and now into the NFL. So he is not giving them much hope, especially a team without Nick Chubb. So the Browns are probably more desperate, but I think the Steelers are desperate enough to win this game.

Scott: You mentioned the problems that the Browns are facing at the quarterback position. The Bengals have announced Joe Burrow, their starting quarterback, is out for the year. Jim, is this starting to feel like if the Steelers don't capitalize on other team's misfortunes, of course, barring injury problems of the Steelers' own, that heads will have to roll this off-season?

Wexell: Well, I'm unsure. You know, I heard today that they pegged the odds of [offensive coordinator Matt] Canada returning at 51%. And that really surprised me. I would put them more at 20 to 25%. The offense just doesn't look that good. It's just not producing. And I would think there's going to be pressure no matter how the end of the season all unwinds, how it all unravels. That's my opinion. Heads roll? Tomlin's head's not going to roll, and the fact that he's 6-3 with this team and now they're getting better. The quarterback is now entering the second half of his second year, passed a concussion, passed a rib injury, and he's got his tight end back. He's got his two wide receivers back, his running game's rolling, the offensive line... everything's in place now. It would be a huge disappointment if they did sputter out because they look like they're in position — it seems like a 3-6 season that's going to finish with eight straight wins. That's what it seems like. But the fact they're 6-3 is a testament to their pluckiness and Tomlin's ability to keep them together and keep them focused and their front office's ability to provide depth. And, you know, injuries happened and they had people step in for [defensive lineman] Cam Heyward. In theory, they're going to step in for [free safety] Minkah [Fitzpatrick] this week again, against a rookie quarterback. So things are really working out. A lot of people are doing a better job than we may think because they don't win easily. But at 6-3 and only good things ahead, now it's like the path is just opening up for them. Like they're a team of destiny with the way these other teams' quarterbacks are going down. So I would prefer not to look at heads rolling at this point because everything looks so optimistic for me.

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Scott: Jim, you mentioned on the injury front for the Steelers, two straight weeks of losing an inside linebacker, first Cole Holcomb, now Kwon Alexander. How big of a deal is this? Because I feel like it's not being talked about enough. And is there one person who steps into that starting role or is it going to be by committee?

Wexell: Well, it's not too scary right now because the Cleveland Browns are a running team. They don't figure to really stretch or stress the coverage back or that these guys are missing. Holcomb was the coverage backer. Kwon Alexander stepped in, was a great coverage backer. It's a shame they missed both of them because they were just starting to play well. But Elandon Roberts is really showing something as a run stuffer. And so against the Browns, this should be his element. And they brought in a couple of weeks ago a guy who started 12 games for Atlanta, put him on the practice squad. It surprised me that they jumped him over Mark Robinson. It was his second year, he's been the number four inside linebacker, promising guy. And they jumped him with a guy that started 12 games last year and made 107 tackles. A young guy who's more of a coverage backer. So he has that possibility. And it's just another good heads-up call. I don't know if it's Omar Khan or Andy Weidl or Mike Tomlin because they played against the Falcons last year. They played against this guy. So I don't know if Tomlin knew about him, and Tomlin said, hey, our practice squad isn't just for developmental guys. We're stashing people. I think he said something like that this week. And sure enough, they've got a guy who made 100 tackles last year and you know, he will help, especially since they also have Keanu Neal, when he comes back, who can be the coverage backer in sub-package or third downs. So I don't know that it's a huge deal. It is a dang shame because Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander were really starting to play some good ball.

Scott: You mentioned the fact Keanu Neal, when he comes back, can step into the inside linebacker role. He's typically a safety. He's actually out for this Sunday, as is Minkah Fitzpatrick, the All-Pro safety. So who steps into that role? Are they going to have to elevate somebody off the taxi squad for that position?

Wexell: Yes. Trenton Thompson has been told he's going to start. He's tall. He played for the Giants last year and then he got cut at camp and the Steelers brought him in. Number 17 is a different kind of number. And he's tall. He stood out right away at practice. Then he gets into the preseason games and was making plays. He had an interception. He was making plays. He had a really good preseason. Then he went to the practice squad as the season began and they have guys like Miles Killebrew and Elijah Riley. They have veteran safeties in reserve. They're jumping those guys with Trenton Thompson. Those guys are deemed more nickel slot guys, and Killebrew as more of a special teams captain. So Trenton Thompson, the tall number 17 is going to get the start and he made plays in preseason. He's interesting. And we talked to him we talked to his buddy, Luc Barcoo, the corner on the practice squad. And Barcoo was saying he's barricaded himself in his room and is just watching film after film because people were asking Barcoo, where is Thompson? We need to interview him. So we finally get Thompson. Barcoo told us how nervous he was and how much film he's watching. He's barricading himself. He sees devouring the playbook. And so we get Thompson. I said, 'are you nervous?' 'No, I'm good.' I said, 'you watch a lot of film.' 'Well, I am watching on film, but I know I'm good. I get this. I understand this. I'm ready. I'm excited, but I'm not nervous.' So his friend says one thing and Thompson says the other. And it's going to be interesting. Again, it's the perfect week with if the Browns are going to play a rookie fifth-round pick. I don't know how difficult. I don't know if he's probably going to be the strong safety. [Damontae] Kazee will probably be the free safety and the quarterback back there and directing Trenton around a little bit. So Trenton, I mean, it would look like a major hole with two guys off the practice squad going to start on defense, but maybe not. And you know, it's time for the offense to carry the load, too. And when [tight end Pat] Freiermuth back and the two receivers and the running game rolling it's about time for the Steelers to give some comfort. Give some breathing room for their defense.

Scott: Tight end Pat Freiermuth is indeed back this Sunday, or at least he's on track to play. He practiced all this week. Will the Steelers finally open up the middle of the field on offense?

Wexell: Well, that's the thinking and that's what [quarterback Kenny] Pickett says will happen. And, I will say this: you know, Mike Tomlin has said, you know, I've recommended to Kenny to stay away from the middle field because that's where all the people are. That's where all the interceptions happen. And sure enough, Kenny didn't throw many picks last year and this year he only has four picks. And that is a huge reason they're allowed to stay in these games until Kenny's adrenaline starts kicking in in the fourth quarter. And he threw a beautiful pass over the middle to George Pickens last week. That should have clinched the game, if not for the pick penalty that was caught on that play. But I mean, Kenny can throw into the middle. So you would assume with Freiermuth back that that at least becomes more of a threat. And so at least defenses will have to cover the middle and they'll do more inside with Pickens and D.J [Diontae Johnson]. But the point remains, Kenny is throwing outside the numbers and he's not getting intercepted. I know he's had a few pick-sixes dropped, but so far, so good in this theory. I know we all are aghast that they're not even using the middle of the field, but things are working.

Scott: Doesn't sound like you're too worried, but I've got to ask, who wins on Sunday?

Wexell: I liked the Steelers when Deshaun Watson was playing. I looked over the Browns numbers. I was shocked when I looked up that they were number one in the NFL in yardage and pass yardage and seventh in run defense, sixth in scoring defense because their last five games they have some ugly defensive numbers and that's how I handicap games, on a rolling five-game basis. And shockingly their yards per completion allowed is 13.0. You know, teams strike them deep because they have those two great cover corners and they play a lot of man-to-man. So teams take their shots deep, and that's what the Steelers will do with Pickens. So that's fewer risks involved. And the potential for big plays exist as the Browns have given them up. And the Browns don't have a good red zone defense for all those high rankings I just read. They're 27th in red zone defense. So once you get in that red zone, they lack efficiency and their offense lacks efficiency. There's a lot of things to like about the Steelers, even if Deshaun Watson was playing. So I took the Steelers then, and now they have just a pop at quarterback, [a] rookie fifth-round pick who really wasn't even that good in college. That just tells me the Steelers are going to win. I think so.

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).