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WESA Talking Steelers: Big Ben sounds off on struggles; has team lost its way? Saturday a must-win

A football player holds a football.
Gene J. Puskar
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt warms up before an NFL football game against the New England Patriots in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023.

In what's being labeled a playoff game, even though it's only week 15 of the NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers head to Indianapolis on Saturday for a 4:30 p.m. showdown with the Colts. The Colts, like the Steelers, are 7-6, and the loser of the matchup figures to face an uphill battle to make the postseason.

Jim Wexell writes for and has been a Steelers beat writer since 1995 and joins us right now.

This conversation contains language that may not be suitable for younger audience members.

Jeremy Scott: Jim, Dr. Bennet Omalu is back in the news locally. The city of Pittsburgh announced this week they're hiring him to do an investigation regarding a police-involved death. Omalu, of course, was the main character in the movie "Concussion," played by Will Smith, as the guy who really kind of did the uncovering between CTE and the mental health of NFL players after they retire.

Well, last week, T.J. Watt came out of the game against New England after taking a knee to the head, then came back in, but was curiously wearing a visor for the rest of the game. Now, he and the team have denied that he was, in fact, concussed, and he's been cleared for action this week. But should the Steelers be concerned about further investigation by the NFL?


Jim Wexell: Well, I'm not sure about the investigation. You know, all I know is that we asked Cam Heyward and Cam said we were talking and joking and laughing and talking about the game, the entire game he was in. Cam, said 'he told me he was kicked in the face, but I had no idea that he would have concussion symptoms the next day.' So, you know, if they're investigated, if they followed protocol — I assume they did, because, you know, Pittsburgh, as you mentioned, with the other doctor, is the preeminent concussion town and team in the country — so if they didn't follow protocol, then they probably deserved to be in trouble.

But I have a hunch that they did everything right. It's just, you know, the thing with T.J., you can imagine how determined T.J. is to get back in the game. I have no idea. All I know is what Cam said, that T.J. seemed fine throughout the game.


Scott: Now, we don't need to rehash the last two losses to the Cardinals and Patriots. We've done plenty of that on these airwaves. But I mentioned in the opening that this is, for all intents and purposes, being looked at as a playoff type game, at least by the media. What's been the tenor in the locker room this week?


Wexell You know, it's funny, I led my last column by saying the Steelers players were raving about their last two great practices, to which the Steelers fans said about time. Joey Porter said that the game against the Colts is a playoff game. To which Steelers fans said, 'oh, no.' So yes, they have had a great practice. This is the practice they should have had before Arizona. And I think on our show we talked about it. 'Frivolous' is the word I think I said, and that's how the practices were.

I'm not saying they didn't do the job, but the atmosphere was not what I like as an observer. I always like, after an embarrassing loss, when they come out and Coach Tomlin is chewing them out, and everybody's hopping to, and their communication is just so evident. It's all buzz, buzz, buzz. It's a great practice. And that's what they did this week.


Scott: Former quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went on his podcast "Footbahlin'" this week and said the so-called "Steelers way" may be over with. Now, you've covered this team going on 30 years. Jim, what's your take on that?


Wexell: Well, you know, Troy Polamalu said this a long time ago. I think he lockered over by Antonio Brown. And I always got the feeling that since A.B. started a brawl with the secondary one training camp practice over Dick LeBeau. I had the feeling he was talking about A.B. And so that kind of began the slide. But again, I was there in 2000 interviewing Richard Huntley when a fist came over my shoulder and popped Huntley right in the mouth during my interview and a brawl erupted. And that was it. That was 2000, coming off two losing seasons. 2000, they went 9-7.

So that was a bad group, too. You know, it happens. And guys in that locker room named Alan Faneca, Joey Porter, Hines Ward, and Aaron Smith were way too young to take leadership roles and they never did anything in that brawl except watch it as that team got weeded out and eventually grew into a great championship team. And Troy Polamalu was one of those guys. It's the problem with hiring great players to become coaches. They just have a feeling that it comes natural. What came naturally to them should come natural to everybody.

The great character of that team, I mentioned four guys. And then there's Troy and Bettis and on down the line, just great character; James Farrior, on and on and on. They're special for a reason. They won championships for a reason. Because they're special, not because it's the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. They had a special group of players and they started leaving. And guess what? Because of Ben Roethlisberger, who came into that older group as a young guy, now Ben's in his prime as the entire team needs replaced and rebuilt. So Ben carries them. Tomlin's a good coach. They get to 9-7 every year and they're a shell of that former team. But they have some great players. But each one of those great players: Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Ryan Shazier got injured before playoff games and they lost those playoff games and they were not a deep team.

So what was able to be rebuilt then and then hurt by injuries and defections actually with A.B. and Le'Veon, and then Pouncey and DeCastro got old together when Ben got old. So it's all adding up to a media-generated seven-year playoff losing streak "bitch" to use a lack of a better word. That's all I'm hearing about. You know, Ben was an old man, and he had an old offensive line, and then all of a sudden, Ben's gone and the o-line's gone. This offense needs completely rebuilt. They have Kenny Pickett with the 20th pick because Tomlin's teams don't lose well enough to get a top five pick as most teams rejuvenate themselves by.

So I don't understand who Ben expected to get up and stand up and talk. Dan Moore? I mean the guy on the offensive line who strikes me as a future leader and future butt kicker is Broderick Jones, and he's a rookie and he's not going to say 'boo' right now. He's not going to stand up. Is Mitch Trubisky going to stand up and talk for the offense? He stinks. He knows better than that. He's got to look in the mirror. He can't be standing up to and people out the way Minkah did.

I don't know who Ben wanted to stand up and talk and, you know, did Ben want Mason Rudolph to stand up and talk? Remember, Mason Rudolph was drafted and Ben criticized the organization for drafting a quarterback. And then he said he wouldn't help Mason. I mean, what kind of leader was that? So, you know, for Ben to hide behind the 'Steeler way' of the great Troy Polamalu and Jerome Bettis and Alan Faneca and Hines Ward, it's a little hypocritical and I'm glad I don't have to listen to passive aggressive shots at the coordinator after every game either.


Scott: Wide receiver George Pickens said this week it's hard for him to produce when he's only being asked to run three-to-five yard out routes. Interim O.C. Eddie Faulkner more or less validated Pickens and said it's incumbent upon the quarterbacks to get him the ball. Do you anticipate, therefore, a heavy dose of number 14 this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium?


Wexell: I do. Not that I liked what he said. I mean, there's some truth to that. And this offense needs completely revamped. But they also need a wide receivers coach to lean on that guy. He's a talented player. You know, we can talk about the culture changing and look at these wide receivers and say that, but I remember Plaxico Burress being the exact same way. And Hines Ward had a big effect. And then he left and Antwaan Randle El came in; a great character guy. So wide receiver is a position where you have this kind of lack of character, for lack of a better word. And I don't like that George Pickens said what he said. You shouldn't be complaining about the routes. We all know the offense stinks and needs revamped and needs a new offensive coordinator. That said, I expect Pickens to have a big game.


Scott: Jim, next week at this time, will we be talking about what a relief it was to beat the Colts or will we be talking about playing spoiler the rest of the way because the Steelers fell to 7-7?


Wexell: Well, I think, you know, for all I criticize Ben, he woke up the echoes. Ryan Clark was another one, Merril Hoge was another one. You know, these guys all came down on this team. Whether it's deserving or not, I think it's a rebuilding team. And at 7-6 is still overachieving, but the echoes have been stirred.

The practices I love; they were crisp. Everybody's hopping to, everybody, I think, is looking in the mirror. The defense knows they have to even play better. Guys like Minkah shot their mouth off last week. They know they've got to start getting a turnover. So Minkah has to do the job, too; Cam Heyward. And I think the Colts are the right tonic. They don't have Jonathan Taylor, and so their run game has been abysmal without Jonathan Taylor. They put Joey Porter, Jr. on Michael Pittman, and they should be able to shut that team down and maybe score a lot of points. They practiced indoors, they're playing indoors. This could be a nice breakout game against a pretty cheesy Colts defense. So yeah, I expect the Steelers to win. Now whether they can then proceed with a continuation of this hard practice week next week after a win, that's always been Mike Tomlin's bugaboo is dealing with success. So we'll see about that. But I do think they're going to win this week.


Scott: I leave you with this question, Jim. Hot topic in town and you kind of alluded to it in one of the things you said. You said this is a rebuilding team. In a word, is Mike Tomlin, the man for the rebuild?


Wexell: I think so. I think he's still got the energy. I think he's got to get an offensive coordinator. You know, they went outside the organization, brought in Todd Haley, and that was a good hire. But guess what: Ben didn't like him. So then they had to go with one of Ben's buddies. And so, you know, for whatever reason, maybe the culture shifted then. But it's time to go back outside. Get a good offensive coordinator, maybe a wide receivers coach to lean on these wide receivers, maybe a new wide receiver and maybe a new quarterback to challenge Kenny Pickett. I still like Kenny Pickett to take them into next season, give him another chance. But they do have to add to that unit. They need young talent there as the backups are not showing anything.


Scott: So yes or no, Mike Tomlin gets an extension this offseason.


Wexell: Oh, get an extension. I'm not sure what [owner] Art [Rooney II] is thinking. I assume he will, and it won't go over well. Pittsburgh just doesn't like Mike Tomlin. And they point to all these playoff losses. I can list a bunch of excuses. You know, Franco Harris missed one playoff game in his illustrious career, and they lost that game. And that was considered the greatest Steelers team of all time, 1976. So it hurts to lose special skill players and that has hurt Tomlin's playoff record and that should be taken into account. I think he deserves better. But coming off those last two games, it's hard to make that case. It's taken me 10 days to get wound up and make a good case for Mike Tomlin because those two games were abysmal. But to answer your question, yes.

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).