The Steelers held their final practice of training camp at Saint Vincent College Thursday afternoon and it raised a question.
Is this team better or worse than we thought a few weeks ago?
Mike Tomlin was asked that question this week and said he wouldn’t know for sure until he saw what happens during the season. But who wants to wait that long?
Certainly not Ben Roethlisberger.
“I like this group,” Roethlisberger said. “I think we have a special group of people here. That’s why I am excited to see when things get real what is going to happen.”
Things will get real soon enough, if they didn’t last weekend with the death of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.
Roethlisberger didn’t play Saturday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, but he’s expected to get some in-game work next weekend at Tennessee.
After that, it will basically be on to New England for the season opener.
The Steelers walked a straight line throughout the training camp process. There were no self-made distractions.
But the surprising death of Drake, at 62, left a pall over the camp.
“I think Coach Tomlin has done a very good job of understanding what Coach Drake would want from all of us right now,” left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. “Coach Drake would not want us to dwell on this. He definitely would want us to have a good sense of humor about this. So, for us, it’s about starting to realize that we have a season to play. We have to get focused. The playmakers have to make plays, and it’s a great opportunity to honor his life, his legacy, by making those plays, by staying focused and playing our best football.”
That seems to be the general feeling around the team. There’s obvious sadness. That won’t go away. Nor should it.
Former Steelers tight end Matt Spaeth, who spent two seasons in Chicago with Drake, put it best.
“I think a coach is as close to a father as there is,” Spaeth said. “People don’t realize the amount of time we spend with our coaches. It’s all the time and you become very, very close with them. These guys have gotten to know him very well, so it’s a really big loss for some of these guys.”
It’s a really big loss, but as Villanueva said, the Steelers can honor Drake by playing their best football this season.
There’s no reason to think that won’t happen.
After seeing this team in action throughout camp and the preseason, it looks like a much better group than the one that finished the 2018 season.
Sure, Antonio Brown isn’t around. But the distractions of Brown aren’t around any longer, either.
Imagine, for example, if Brown’s helmet issues and frostbitten feet were happening last weekend while the Steelers were dealing with the death of Drake.
You’d better believe there are a lot of relieved people within the organization. They haven’t had to deal with Brown’s feet and helmet this summer.
- The stars of the camp for the Steelers were a pair of receivers. JuJu Smith-Schuster looked like he’s more than ready to take on the role of being a No. 1 receiver.
James Washington, meanwhile, continues to look like a guy who will make a big leap as well.
“One thing you don’t do is you don’t replace Antonio Brown,” Drake told me last week. “You don’t replace those things he did. You have enough talent on your team for guys to have different roles and do certain things. There are certain things that they have to do. Each and every guy has a certain thing he does well. It’s our job to put them in a situation where he can flourish. It’s his job to take advantage of it.
“Those are huge numbers. We don’t know where those touchdowns, those numbers are going to come from. But there will be opportunities for guys to make those plays. When they get opportunities to make those plays, they’re got to make them. It’s that simple.”
- Drake had been with the Steelers for a little more than 18 months, but he made a lasting impression in that time.
Villanueva said Drake had made a noticeable impact on Roethlisberger.
The quarterback was under a lot of fire in the offseason, especially from the national media, which took Brown’s side of things when he forced his way out of Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger was a bad leader. Roethlisberger was a jerk who had an “owner’s mentality.” At least that’s what was being parroted in the national media.
“The big one he had this year was shut out the noise,” Roethlisberger said of Drake. “Everything that is not important, that is not right here, shut it out and focus on what is important, and that is this group.”
The quarterback took that to heart.
“I only knew him for a year and a half,” Roethlisberger said. “But I think in that year in a half he meant more to me than some people that I’ve known for my whole life. I know he was an amazing football coach, but he was even a better man, better husband, better father and a better man of God than he was a football coach. So, what he brought to this team and our relationship together was truly something that can never be replicated.”