WESA Talking Steelers: Draft coming to Pittsburgh? Offense comes alive, former Pitt RB returns
The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off a 16-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals this past Sunday and now sit at 7-4 on the season with the 2-10 Arizona Cardinals awaiting them this Sunday at Acrisure Stadium.
Jim Wexell writes for 247sports.com and Steel City Insider. He's also been a Steelers beat writer since 1995, and he joins us now, as he does each and every Friday at this time.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeremy Scott: Jim, I do want to talk about this coming game, but first, the Steelers have made it official. They placed a bid with the NFL to host the draft in either 2026 or 2027. How much of a collaborative effort is that with Visit Pittsburgh, versus how much autonomy do the Steelers have to make that happen on their end?
Jim Wexell: Man, I don't really know. It's more of the hoopla around the draft that I care not to know about. My attention is on the players being drafted and the possibilities. I have no idea. I assume it's just another Roger Goodell circus. You know, the Steelers, of course, will have to coordinate. They'll do fine. They have a massive organization — many, many workers, and they'll be excited about this. And it just gives everybody a place to go. And I hope they're happy because I won't be anywhere near it.
Scott: Well, I'm going to stay there for just another second, much to your chagrin. When the rumor first came out that the Steelers were in fact looking to do this, I said Stage AE would make the most sense since there's already a stage, for one, and it could be held indoors or outdoors. Where would you predict this would be held if Pittsburgh were to get it?
Wexell: Man. I just thought maybe the convention center. But Stage AE makes a lot of sense to me.
Scott: All right, Jim, let's get into the football stuff. The Steelers gained 400 yards of offense for the first time since 2018, this past Sunday. Has that energy of accomplishing that for the first time in five years carried over to the locker room in practice this week?
Wexell: Seems to have. Although this game makes me nervous and I wonder if there is maybe more frivolity than energy. The wise heads like Cam Heyward swear that nobody's looking at the record of the Cardinals (2-10). The energy there seems to be less chaos. They like what's happened. They like Eddie Faulkner. I understand why. I talked to him. Very charismatic leader and but also humble with that charisma. So it's an excellent mix of a new commander in the offensive room. So I think the players all like that. They like the yardage output. They realize they only scored one touchdown. So I would say the energy carried over, but I'm still nervous that they might be a little lax. I like them after a loss and I like watching them at practice after a loss. There's so much chatter and intensity on the field and the coaches are barking at them. There's a lot less of that this week.
Scott: This past Sunday was the first time, as you referenced, without former offensive coordinator, the much maligned Matt Canada. What's been the difference between how Canada conducts business during the week versus how co-coordinators Eddie Faulkner and Mike Sullivan do?
Wexell: We want to point to the obvious. We want to say they throw to the tight end more, they're throwing over the middle of the field, they're going to run the ball with more authority and attention. But I think that all might have had something to do with the way Cincinnati played defense. So what I'm gathering is that they like Faulkner's attention to detail, his inclusion of the assistant coaches. He was emphatic about the input from all of the assistant coaches. I asked him, 'Is that new?' He goes 'Oh no,' but he highlighted it. He made sure there was a lot of good input from all the coaches. And he especially was praising Pat Meyer, the offensive line coach. That was good to hear. The offensive line has come a long way and Pat was under the gun early in the year for not having developed that line. So to see the line come together and then four or five weeks later, you hear him get praise from the interim offensive coordinator, made me feel good about their foundation. The offensive line is the foundation. And so it seems to be coming together and that bodes well for the future.
Scott: Couple storylines I want to highlight coming into this Sunday's game versus the Arizona Cardinals. First and foremost, the Pitt graduate, the cancer survivor, James Conner, makes his first return to Pittsburgh since leaving the team after the 2020 season. Any James Conner stories that you can share with us from your interactions with him?
Wexell: You know, James wasn't the easiest guy for the media to get to know. For for being a hometown guy and playing at Pitt and getting so many accolades and getting so many bouquets for overcoming cancer, he didn't really like talking to us much. I don't know if that's kind of story you're looking for. I don't really have anything personal with him. I had to do a feature on one time and I asked Maurkice Pouncey, I said, 'Give me something good to bring up a topic to bring up with Conner.' And he said, 'Ask him about going on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.' And so we had a mob around Conner, and I said, 'Hey, James, tell me about the Ellen DeGeneres Show you appeared on,' whenever. And he said, 'You're asking me about Ellen DeGeneres?' I said, 'Yeah. Tell me about the show you went on.' 'You're really asking me about Ellen DeGeneres?' 'Yeah.' So he gave me a hard time. No real answer. You know, I don't want to say he's not a nice guy. He was just so focused on football that those kind of questions came out of left field to him. And he didn't want to go down that path.
You know, he had the blood cancer lymphoma. And at the same time when he was at the combine and this would be my first time interviewing James, I thought he would make a good Steelers pick. He was a Pitt kid and all the Pittsburgh reporters and circled him en masse and we got him at the combine. And at the time, my daughter was being recruited to play goalie as a soccer player. And at the time, one of the coaches recruiting her found out that there was a lot of blood cancer among goalkeepers, and they thought it had to do with the little rubber tires that were ground up and put on all the artificial surface fields around the country, like the one at the indoor facility for Pitt and the Steelers. I don't know if you know what I'm talking about. All that black — the tires are all chewed up and spread around the field.
Wexell: And they were thinking that the goalies were getting lymphoma from working in diving and breathing into those that that mess. And I asked Conner about that because he's a fullback that plays in that kind of stuff, and he did not like the question. He said, 'I heard of that. It's not a fact.' He was miffed. So, I mean, sorry, I wish I had more James Conner stories. It's always miffed at me for some reason.
Scott: The other thing I wanted to talk about is a little bit more on the field related, T.J. Watt goes up against the much heralded coming out of college, out of Ohio State, Paris Johnson, Junior. That is certain to be a marquee matchup to watch. And I'm just curious as to anything else that you're looking for besides that matchup. Any matchups that you think are the keys and will tell the story of this game?
Wexell: I've kind of been excited to watch [safety] Budda Baker play, but I hadn't even considered Paris Johnson. And he was the offensive tackle that I really liked in this draft. I had heard the Steelers were going to trade up and I eyeballed the Chicago Bears. I believe it picked nine off memory. And I was thinking that that's a nice spot to grab Paris Johnson. I think he might've gone nine. It might have gone a little earlier, but Cardinals grabbed it. He was the guy I really liked. Of course, Broderick Jones is really playing well, so maybe the Steelers got the good one there. But I do want to watch Paris Johnson and I do want to watch Budda Baker. The safety. I always liked him in college. I was hoping the Steelers drafted him and I just want to see how he's come along because I haven't watched the Cardinals in a long time.
Scott: You mention the fact that you're kind of worried about this game. You're kind of looking at it as a potential trap game because they're coming off of a win. And I think your words were 'more frivolity than focus.' So what is your prediction for the Sunday, Jim?
Wexell: You know, I'm not certain that that was frivolity and not focus just coming off two division games and there was a win the last one. They're 4-7 under Tomlin coming off two division games against a non-division team. So this is a classic trap game for them, 2-10. You know, I keep hearing not players and not coaches but people around the team are all excited that they're going to win two in a row. And they're looking at New England on Thursday already. And these people don't have anything to do with the football side of it. But when I hear things like that constantly, my antenna goes up. Like I've heard this stuff before from the same people. Before the Houston game when I warned them about the Houston trap. And so the good part about the Cardinals is that from the Steelers perspective is they've given up 4.6 per carry the last five games. They're probably the softest run defense the Steelers will face in the last at least five games. And in those five games, they've faced some soft run defenses and they've chewed them up. So if the Steelers can chew this team up, then they shouldn't have to worry about any kind of trap.
Scott: And final question for you. Coming back around, putting a bow on this, bringing it full circle. Percentage probability, the Steelers do, in fact, get one of the drafts?
Wexell: Oh, I mean, who wouldn't — I'm sure the NFL would love to be in Pittsburgh. So I'm going to say 80%. That's just my guess. I again, I have not looked into it.