Coming off a gutty 20-16 win over the Tennessee Titans last Thursday night, the Steelers got some momentum for their 10-day layoff leading into this Sunday’s game. But it’s momentum versus momentum as the team coming to town, the Green Bay Packers, are coming off their first win since Sept. 24.
Jim Wexell writes for 247 Sports.com and has been a Steelers beat writer since 1995.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeremy Scott: Okay, Jim, since last we spoke, the Steelers official Facebook page posted a pic of the guys’ Halloween costumes: Kenny Pickett as Captain Jack Sparrow, and Alex Highsmith as Bobby Boucher from ‘The Waterboy.’ My personal favorite, though, were Patrick Peterson and his entire family as the cast of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Jim, who, in your opinion, won Halloween for the Steelers?
Jim Wexell: Yeah. I’m going to go with you. I’ll just have to side with Patrick Peterson. We all enjoy talking to him in the locker room. Whether he has much left or not, he’s still an enjoyable dude and so I’ll vote for him.
Scott: The Packers have struggled this year, getting into this Sunday’s game. There’s no nicer way that I can say what I think of Jordan Love and what I’ve seen of Jordan Love, other than he’s not been the quarterback they thought they were getting when he was drafted in the first round to one day be the heir apparent to Aaron Rodgers. But I don’t want to pick on low-hanging fruit. What does Jordan Love do well?
Wexell: I really haven’t watched him. But I do know Kenny Pickett is looking ugly again in practice this week, so everybody has their own problems. Jordan Love won’t have to complete much. He has a good running game and they have a good defense, so two teams that are similar are going to be facing each other.
Scott: Kenny Pickett has looked ugly in practice this week. Let’s talk about that. What’s going on?
Wexell: I’m not supposed to report what I see in practice. I’m just saying the dude, man — somebody had a good point, saying he put on all this muscle in the off season. You have to work with a passing guru who understands kinesiology so that you don’t disrupt your throwing with the extra muscle. And he beseeched me to ask Kenny if he knows the guy [Eagles’ quarterback] Jalen Hurts went to, because he’s the guy that trains [Chiefs’ quarterback] Pat Mahomes. So, it might be something like that because I don’t remember Kenny being this inaccurate. Some ugly throws, and he doesn’t throw many interceptions, because sometimes when his throws are off, nobody can catch them.
Scott: What scares me the most about the Packers offense is their dynamic duo of running backs, basically thunder and lightning. AJ Dillon, the bruiser; Aaron Jones, the speedster. Jones gets the bulk of the touches and he’s always a threat to receive out of the backfield. Who on the Steelers defense draws the Aaron Jones assignment?
Wexell: Has to be Kwon Alexander and I think Kwon’s up for it. [Safety] Minkah [Fitzpatrick]’s out, and so has Montravius Adams, the nose tackle. So that clears the way for yet another rookie who’s been knocking at the door to get the start and probably not leave the lineup. Keeanu Benton. But Kwon Alexander is, I don’t want to say he’s replacing Cole Holcomb, because Kwon was playing a lot anyway, but now he’s the full-time three down pass coverage signal caller with the green dot. And so Kwon will absolutely have Aaron Jones on his mind much of the day.
Scott: The Steelers are looking like they’re going to be without the entire middle of their defense with one inside linebacker, Cole Holcomb, who you just mentioned, out for the year. The other inside linebacker, Elandon Roberts, has been dealing with a knee of his own and this means it’ll be the aforementioned Kwon Alexander and Mark Robinson, the second year guy, getting the start. You have a piece up right now at 247sports.com, in which Kwon says and I quote, ‘ain’t nothing changed’ now that he’s going to be getting more reps. But how seamlessly do you expect that transition to go?
Wexell: Well, I expect Elandon to play, but I also expect Mark Robinson to play quite a bit, too. And I’m kind of excited. Elandon Roberts is dealing with a knee but says he’s going to play. He is more of a run stuffer. So if he’s hobbled, he’s a guy who really isn’t that good in pass coverage. And if he’s further hobbled, he will be sitting a lot for Mark Robinson, I think. And what both of those veteran linebackers said about Robinson is that he comes prepared as if he’s going to start every week. They almost felt bad for him. How hard he prepares when they know he’s the number four guy and isn’t going to play much, if at all. But so they’re excited. Because they know Mark Robinson is going to be ready.
And what we know about Mark Robinson is he moved from running back to a middle linebacker at Ole Miss his senior year. So he has his senior year and last year minimal experience, but a strong, fast, explosive guy who really blows up the run. It’s just he has been raw. Now he says he’s not raw anymore. I asked him, should we still label you as the running back turned linebacker? He goes, ‘Man, you all can say what you want. I don’t listen to any of you.’ So he said, we’ll see. So he seems very confident and so do the veterans around him.
Scott: Defensive lineman and defensive captain missed practice both Wednesday and Thursday. Do you expect Cam Heyward to play?
Wexell: I do. I think they’re babying him a little bit this week and justifiably so. I’m hoping he didn’t have a setback. If he had a setback, that they’d put him down. But I expect him to play. And you know, Keeanu Benton will start on the nose. And, boy, he really looked good last week. That’s actually four rookies, counting Darnell Washington, but three rookies at the top three picks, Broderick Jones, Joey Porter, Jr. and Keeanu Benton have really been knocking at the door.
You know, we we lack patience in the media and in the fan base. Why not getting those rookies out there? But the coaches have their own pace and they’ve got to deem the right moment. [Offensive lineman] Chuks [Okorafor] had a blow up at the end of the Jacksonville game and that was — I’m going to call it the excuse — to put Broderick Jones in, because Broderick Jones could play and they all knew it. And then he showed he can play. Same with Joey Porter, Jr. We’re going to see the same thing from Keeanu Benton because he played a lot last week. Really collapses the pocket from the inside, where Montravius Adams is a quicker, penetrating nose tackle, the kind [head coach Mike] Tomlin likes, the kind that kill your run per carry average, instead of holding two guys up at the line like Casey Hampton and Joel Steed. Montravius Adams tries to dart around the center and disrupt the passing game. And he does that fairly well. But Keeanu Benton’s more of the old school guy, just a bigger guy that collapses the pocket on his way while he’s playing the run.
So when Cam takes a break in their nickel and sub package when there’s only four linemen counting the two outside linebackers and there’s only two tackles instead of three, Keeanu Benton moves over and gets some time from Cam Heyward, too. So if Cam doesn’t play the full game, there’s a benefit of giving Keeanu Benton the full game that he’s going to start. He needs to get rolling with his career.
Scott: The NFL switched from an even 16-game schedule to a 17-game schedule a couple of years ago. So it’s an odd number of games now. But for all intents and purposes, with this being the Steelers’ ninth game of the year, we can say we’ve reached the halfway point of the NFL season. In as condensed of a form as you can give, Jim, without leaving anything important out, what is the state of the Steelers at this midway checkpoint of the 2023 NFL regular season?
Wexell: I think everything’s progressing very great, especially with the way the middle linebackers played. I know Cole Holcomb’s hurt, but middle linebackers have played [well] and the rookies have really come on. A really, really promising class. But, Kenny Pickett. Kenny needs to pick it up. He needs to start hitting all the easy passes. And that’s the state of the Steelers. The state of Kenny Pickett, which a lot of people have determined that he can’t do it. I am not one of those people. I think a winning quarterback is in there. We see him in the fourth quarter. But he does have to pick his game up. It’s got to start improving in the second half. And that’s where the state of the Steelers will be determined.