Steel City Underground presents our 2019 Steelers Recall: a look back at Pittsburgh Steelers games and storylines from last season.
It’s hard to believe, but as little as six months ago all of the talk about the Steelers offseason was about the defense.
Heading into training camp the team had a number of questions they had hoped would be answered. Chief among those thoughts was if the team finally had a solution at the inside linebacker position, which had been sorely lacking since Ryan Shazier’s injury over a season earlier.
While fans were excited to see the development at that position, the secondary still had question marks as well. Former first round pick Artie Burns was the center of constant speculation throughout camp, with many believing he could be cut or traded, as the cornerback was benched during the 2018 season.
His replacement, Coty Sensabaugh, wasn’t brought back either. The team opted to make a move in free agency for a name which flew under the radar; former Chiefs corner Steven Nelson signed a 3-Year, $25.5 million deal.
With most fans not knowing his name in a pool of other higher profile defensive backs, other questions loomed about the secondary as well. Could Joe Haden remain healthy or was he on the backside of his career? Would Terrell Edmunds develop in his second year after being the team’s 2018 first round draft pick?
And what of Sean Davis, an “iron man” who had played nearly every down at multiple positions since his rookie season: now entering a contract year.
Not to take away from the offense, where questions still surfaced about the losses of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, but those seem to have been mitigated by two returning Pro Bowl players in JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner.
No, the biggest story heading into camp (other than seeing Bush in a Steelers jersey) was that of Bud Dupree. The outside linebacker had been criticized for underperforming as a former first round pick, but the organization didn’t think so and optioned him for a fifth-year under his rookie deal.
The amount that option paid, over $11 million guaranteed for one season, is what turned most heads. The most vehement of fans were content with letting Dupree walk, as they witnessed a level of “camp phenom” play from undrafted outside linebackers Ola Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper.
Eyebrows also raised when folks witnessed the backs-on-backers drill, specifically at the annual Latrobe “Friday Night Lights” practice, where fourth round pick RB Benny Snell went head-on with the top pick, Devin Bush. Each earned their keep during the fracas.
Aside from Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers had three quarterbacks also vying for two spots on the team. Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph were recent draft picks being developed behind the franchise quarterback, but an undrafted gentleman out of FCS school Samford was also turning heads with his gunslinging mentality. The buzz around Devlin Hodges was so big his nickname of “Duck” caught on and he quickly became a preseason fan favorite.
Yet, for all of the side stories which involved playing time, depth charts, and contracts, none may have been bigger than the loss of Steelers wide receivers coach Darryl Drake, who suddenly and unexpectedly passed away on August 11th, following the team’s first preseason game.
Beloved by many players, the loss of Coach Drake would be felt all season.
Invited as a guest to help coach and consult on an interim basis during training camp, long-time NFL assistant Ray Sherman was predicted to, and would, take over as the receivers coach for the season.
In all, the opening to camp had its usual highs and lows. However, it was missing a lot of the flamboyance of previous seasons, with many of the “diva” players now gone. The Steelers appeared to be all business, with a renewed focus on getting back to being a contender following a 2018 campaign where they missed the playoffs.
That’s where Coach Drake’s impact left a lasting impression.
At their Saturday night position meetings, Darryl Drake had told his players to “Shut out the noise”. Those words were among the last that many players heard from their beloved coach and his advice would become billboard material, emblazoned on shirts while his initials were carried on the team’s helmets throughout the season.
“Shut out the noise” was the new focal point heading into 2019 as a reminder of what they needed to do, as well as a homage to their former coach.