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WESA Talking Steelers: the biggest Pittsburgh walk-off since Mazeroski, previewing a busy offseason

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward (97) runs on the field before an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y., Monday, Jan. 15, 2024.
Adrian Kraus
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward (97) runs on the field before an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y., Monday, Jan. 15, 2024.

The 2023 season is over for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They lost on Monday, 31-17, in Buffalo in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.

Jim Wexell writes for the website and has been a Steelers beat writer since 1995. And he joins us now as we wrap up the season and look ahead to some offseason storylines. Jim, it's now been since January 2017 — before Donald Trump even took office as president — since the Steelers won a playoff game. Not many of the guys who populate the current locker room were there for that. But do the current players carry that weight?


Jim Wexell: I think so. And, you know, before the game, Mike Tomlin said he carries the weight. He said the players shouldn't. And it sounded like an honest answer to Bob Labriola. Those are his best press conferences, except for the latest one, which was a great press conference. His best interviews during the week are with Bob Labriola before the game. And he seemed to have a lot of heart in the fact that he hasn't won since then. Myself, I look at him using old man Roethlisberger and a rookie quarterback for most of those years. And it's not the big deal to me it seems to be to everybody else.


Jeremy Scott: Coach Tomlin walked out of the postgame news conference after the Buffalo loss when a reporter asked him if he'd be back next year. He then issued a mea culpa during Thursday's season wrap-up presser. Was that of Tomlin's own doing, or was that the team's PR department at work there, Jim?


Wexell: I believe it was Tomlin's own doing. You know, he watches my podcast and reads all my articles, and I said he probably should have handled it better, but I had no problem with him not answering the question, as Chuck Noll did the same exact thing in 1988. Walked out of a press conference. Only Noll smiled and said, 'I'm not answering that.' Got up and left. So you minus the smile or the explanation and I think Mike has had a problem with that reporter all year, and I just thought it was the wrong time to ask him. My personal opinion.


Scott: Well, let's get to some of these offseason storylines. Most notably during the end of season presser, Tomlin said the team would be looking to an outside candidate to fill the vacant offensive coordinator position instead of rolling with either running backs coach Eddie Faulkner or quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan, who co-filled that role after former offensive coordinator Matt Canada was fired midseason. So who are the Steelers going to interview for that spot?


Wexell: Well, I don't know who. At Steel City Insider, we ran a list the other day with most of the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree on it and a lot of the Detroit, San Francisco, power style of football with passing involved, but more run-oriented, more under the center. So anyway, that entire tree needed examined and the point he had to make was that Art Rooney's going to have to be on board to pay a guy like this. And for them to get a guy like that. Yeah, like six or seven names. Some of them escape me — Clint Kubiak and Brian Griese was a name that that I liked on it. Guys like that but the way it was framed is that has to be made soon, and it has to be made with a lot of money. And the Steelers probably won't do that. That's what he thought.

Well, the way that press conference unfolded, it sure seemed like they want to have a big time offensive coordinator. And the way Art Rooney pinged, Jerry Dulac right after the press conference, and said there will be an extension. So ownership agreed with Mike that there will be an extension that showed any prominent offensive coordinator we're going to have a guy here for a while. So I think all of that came together at the same time as the press conference wrapped up. And, I think they're going to get a big time guy in here who Mike will give a lot of latitude to, in my opinion. I just thought it was great news. It sounds like the Steelers are going to pay big money for a big time guy.


Scott: If you had to throw out a name; your own personal prediction, what would the name be?


Wexell: Oh, man. If I was a betting man. It may be Byron Leftwich. I like Byron, and I know Mike likes Byron. Byron was a really good leader when he was here. Really smart guy. And then he did well in Tampa with Bruce Arians. That's why Bruce brought him in. Because of the days in Pittsburgh. But he was fired and he was out of a job last year. And to me, he's not the guy I would want, but that's just a betting favorite. Antwaan Randle El is another name. Wide receivers coach for Detroit. That's a smart guy. And of course, he played here. Otherwise, my favorite is Brian Griese, the quarterbacks coach at San Francisco.


Scott: Speaking of quarterbacks, Tomlin expressed desire to bring Mason Rudolph back next year to compete for the starting quarterback position with Kenny Pickett, who is the starting quarterback week one of the 2024 season, Jim? Pickett, Rudolph, or someone else?


Wexell: Wow. The betting money again would be on Pickett because he's under contract. Tomlin said he's the number one guy, and that presumes he's talking about under contract guys. But he also said there will be open competition. And he expressed how much he liked Mason and wanted him back. I usually don't get that feel from a coach about pending free agents. They are hopeful. They say yes out of courtesy. They want him back. But he seemed to, at different points in the press conference, repeat himself that he wanted Mason. And then he said there will be open competition. And I believe that was a code for, 'Mason, we're going to be serious about you.' And, you know, Mason is going to cost them a little bit of change because he played pretty well.

So, if they do pay that bit of change then he would be the starter. Right now, the betting favorite would have to be Pickett, because Mason still got to go through free agency and may not come back. But otherwise, if he comes back, then Mason because, how could Pickett beat him in the preseason? Pickett had a perfect preseason last year and we saw in the regular season it didn't pay off. So if he has another perfect preseason, everybody will say, 'yeah, we saw this last year.' And Mason clearly moved the team. And according to Diontae Johnson, another excellent quote coming out of the end of season locker room, Diontae Johnson hopes Mason wins that. And I think that means a lot.


Scott: And it means a lot, obviously, to Mason Rudolph. But what does that mean when it comes to Kenny Pickett? He was the guy who was supposed to be "the next guy" for the next 10 years. And here, one of the most prominent teammates of his is basically saying he doesn't think he's the guy for the job. So how does that bode for Kenny Pickett moving forward?


Wexell: Yeah, well, Kenny probably didn't want to answer those questions, and that's why he ducked out of the locker room the other day and the last day. And I had no problem with that. I think he understands. He's a really good kid and a really good teammate. He gets it. Mason moved the team, but Kenny's going to dig in and have another offseason. There are some things that I think he's going to change about this offseason. Like last offseason, he added all kind of muscle, but it seemed like he lost his touch a bit.

So maybe he's going to incorporate, a trainer who involves throwing the football with the lifting of the weights, and maybe he'll do some different things. And he had a tough year all the way around. I look for him to have a much better third year, and I don't see him taking anything personally. Diontae Johnson has a bit of a flake in him, isn't there? So I don't know that it's that big of a deal to Kenny. Kenny's just got to get in here and move the team.


Scott: We've talked a lot about the offensive side of things. On the defensive side of the ball, Coach Tomlin said changes could also be coming when it comes to personnel, namely coaching. What changes should we be keeping our eye on in that regard?


Wexell: Perhaps there's a position that he's not enamored with, but I don't see Teryl Austin being in any trouble. He still has a contract. I think their problems are more A) personnel and B) injuries. That's an expensive defense. But the three highest-paid guys missed significant time. TJ [Watt] only missed one game, but it was a playoff game, and Minkah [Fitzpatrick] missed a lot of time. And Cam [Heyward] missed a lot of time. So that was a chunk of change right there on the defense when they consider spending because they're still minus a corner. Injuries wiped out two linebackers. That proved critical down the stretch. Strong safety was wiped out. The third safety was wiped out. And TJ and cam were wiped out, but I look for them to add a cornerback in the draft. Probably a high pick if not a first rounder. And then they'll have two shut down corners and then they'll get an inside linebacker. Maybe Cole Holcomb comes back, maybe Kwon Alexander. Maybe they find someone else. Those are the changes I look for in defense. Just personnel.


Scott: You kind of stole my thunder there, Jim, because my final question to you was going to be with their first pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, which position will the Pittsburgh Steelers be targeting?


Wexell: I'll give you a name. A cornerback from Iowa. It was just came up in a mock draft by Dane Brugler. He's a highly regarded draftnick and I had seen this name, and I had heard this name from Mike Tomlin last year. Was raving about this kid in his pro day. The name escapes me.


Scott: Cooper DeJean?


Wexell: Yes. That's it. So, I'll just take him for now. Georgia has a right tackle. That's interesting, because, Georgia brings the right tackle here, then you can move your other Georgia tackle [Broderick Jones] over to the left side where he belongs. Or, quarterback. It could be a quarterback. I wouldn't rule it out because you're still searching. I know Kenny Pickett was the 20th pick of the draft and supposedly is your guy, but, 20th picks don't always pan out at that position. So, they've got to keep looking. But hopefully they can bring Mason back.


Scott: An interesting offseason to come. Jim Wexell, publisher and author of Steel City Insider and Jim, what sorts of things can subscribers expect this offseason at Steel City Insider?


Wexell: Well, I'm making my annual draft appointment, and so I'll be there at the Combine and oh, the entire offseason we've got sources with the team and we'll have that all offseason, like last year, we predicted free agency, and I was told that they were going to look for the cheap positions to fill in free agency and the expensive positions to fill in the draft. And that's exactly what they did. Inside linebacker. Guard. Center. Safety. Those positions can be filled in free agency, and in the draft, corner, tackle, quarterback, wide receiver, defensive tackles. Expensive positions. So stuff like that. I mean, it goes on all season. We've written every day this week. We have the coordinator list up. It's a very good list. Very well-detailed by our Matt Cecil. So that's just a sample.

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).