UNITY TWP., Pa. — The Steelers returned to the practice fields at St. Vincent College on Tuesday under dreary skies and an subdued mood as the team worked out for the first time since the death of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.
The offensive players that worst the most closely with Drake have obviously been hit hardest by his loss.
As the backs and receivers gathered for their individual drills, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger knelt down and gathered the group around him in a prayer circle for a moment of reflection.
Throughout the day, the trademarked smiles of players like JuJu Smith-Schuster were noticeably missing as the team went through their pads-free workout.
The rain, and eventually lightning and thunder, shortened practice after just an hour and 20 minutes and there were few complaints as the Steelers quietly jogged off the practice field.
The receivers dutifully performed their workouts, with two new supervisors to help replace Drake. Coaching assistant Blaine Stewart, who is in his second season with the team and was a wide receiver at Division II Charleston (W.Va.) spent his entire day with the receivers.
Also supervising on-field drills for the first time was Ray Sherman, the former Steelers offensive coordinator and longtime NFL wide receivers coach that has been a guest coach at training for the Steelers.
Sherman was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator under Bill Cowher in 1998. His last full-time NFL position was as receives coach with the St. Louis Rams from 2012-15. He also worked with the Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and Houston Oilers.
Head coach Mike Tomlin said earlier in the day that the team has identified a plan going forward to replace Drake, but did not wish to make it public at this time.
Here’s more from the sights and sounds of the soggy practice:
As advertised, cornerback Joe Haden, offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro and tight end Christian Scotland-Williamson did not practice. Linebacker Vince Williams (hamstring) also did not participate in any team drills.
With the minimal-contact practice, several players were able to return to full participation, mostly notably, starting free safety Sean Davis, cornerback Artie Burns and wide receiver Diontae Johnson.
B.J. Finney played center in place of Pouncey. Matt Feiler shifted from tackle to guard and Chukwuma Okorafor filled in at right tackle. Burns started in place of Haden.
The defense was a decisive victor, allowing only two touchdowns while scoring one.
Roethlisberger’s first pass attempt was a fade to Donte Moncrief that was broken up by Burns, who had excellent position on the play. His second pass was headed for Eli Rogers over the middle, but T.J. Watt leapt up to make an interception and returned it for six the other way.
The offense got on the board when Vance McDonald scored on a nifty tight end jet sweep and then Roethlisberger found McDonald inside the right pylon over Kameron Kelly.
But the second team offense, run by Mason Rudolph, got shut out after he made three attempts at tight ends and none of them found the mark. Brian Allen had good coverage on Zach Gentry on the first pass, Rudolph missed Kevin Rader high on the second one, and Gentry couldn’t come down with the third one in double coverage between Kelly and Marcus Allen.