Last night was the first time that the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the wide receivers, took the field inside of a stadium to suit up for a game since the passing of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. Drake, 62, passed away suddenly on Sunday night after complaining of just pains the day before, but test results showed no abnormalities, and he declined an overnight stay at the hospital for observation.
His death will weigh heavily on the team throughout the season, but its initial impact was significant, resulting in the reshuffling and even cancellation of practice sessions, so that could have limited their preparedness for the game.
And it’s fitting that last night’s game was met with an hour-long rain day. Chuck Noll Field was saturated on Tuesday when they returned to practice for the first time after Drake’s death, time being called 40 minutes early. Their final practice of training camp was also called early due to weather, as though it matched their grief.
The Steelers drafted two wide receivers during his year and a half in Pittsburgh, and they both talked about the only wide receivers coach they’ve ever known at the NFL level following big games from both of them.
James Washington was the first pick he made, a second-rounder in 2018. “Coach Drake’s watching us right now”, he said in the locker room after catching four passes for 78 yards, via the team’s website. “I’m sure he’s up there critiquing my game right now. It was a tough week for us, but we got through it together”.
And Diontae Johnson was the final wide receiver whose drafting he’ll have been a part of. The 66th-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, it was reported that the team may have even had a first-round grade on him, and Drake’s evaluation was a big part of the overall analysis.
“That was my guy when I first met him”, Johnson said in the locker room following the game, from The Fan. “We clicked as soon as we met each other. After that, there was no separating us. He was with me here today. Every play”.
Johnson debuted in last night’s game after sitting out the preseason opener with an injury. He would catch three passes for 46 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown. He had another 24-yard touchdown negated by an offensive pass interference penalty.
Both young players could play a big role in the Steelers’ 2019 season, and also figure to be key elements of their offense for at least the next three years while they play under their rookie contracts. And you can be sure that much of what they do from this point forward will be dedicated to Drake’s memory as his influence on the team continues to be felt.