Kevin Gorman: Young Steelers receivers shut out noise, deliver for Darryl Drake
The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers warmed up at Heinz Field wearing black hoodies with “SHUT OUT THE NOISE” in gold, adopting the words of Darryl Drake as their motto.
Drake’s death last Sunday became a dark cloud that hovered over the final week of Steelers training camp at Saint Vincent, especially in the wide receivers room.
The receivers lost in their position coach a man devoted to faith, family and football, one who made a profound impact in a short time as much for his lessons on life as his teaching of the game.
“Because Coach Drake’s not here anymore, we can’t worry about what everybody says on the outside,” said Diontae Johnson, the rookie receiver who Drake convinced the Steelers to draft in the third round this past spring. “We’re just shutting out the noise, trying to play football and win games.”
Diontae and Drake clicked the first time they met, forming an instant connection before Toledo’s Pro Day. Drake saw something special in Johnson, just as he did in former CFL star Diontae Spencer and free-agent signee Donte Moncrief, who ordered the hooded sweatshirts for the receiving corps.
Drake had another mantra he instilled in his crew: Don’t accept good when great is available. That’s why, as good of a game as the receivers had, they were far from satisfied.
In his NFL debut, Johnson dedicated to Drake his first career touchdown, a 24-yard reception in the fourth quarter that clinched a 17-7 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday night.
“That touchdown was for Coach Drake,” Johnson said. “Everything he coached me to do, I put that in. I made that touchdown for him. Every touchdown I score this year is going to be for him.”
When Mike Tomlin addressed the team on the eve of the game, hours before he and general manager Kevin Colbert and their wives attended funeral services for Drake in Tennessee, the Steelers coach reminded his players what Drake would have wanted them to do: Shut out the noise and make plays.
So, the Steelers receivers made noise with big plays. They started slow, as third-down attempts intended for JuJu Smith-Schuster fell incomplete on the first two series. Moncrief caught a 3-yard pass but was stripped at midfield and lost a fumble.
Then, in the second quarter, Mason Rudolph found James Washington on a third-and-11 for a 22-yard gain. Washington made a leaping grab near the Steelers sideline for 11 yards. Then Josh Dobbs entered late in the first half and threw a deep pass to Washington for a 40-yard gain.
“It means a lot, you know?” said Washington, who finished with four receptions for 78 yards. “Coach Drake is up there watching. I’m sure he’s critiquing my game right now. It was a tough week for us, but we got through it together.”
That’s the truth. Washington was involved in one of the most poignant moments of training camp, when the Steelers skill players took a knee in prayer on Tuesday afternoon in the first practice at Chuck Noll Field after Drake’s death. As Ryan Switzer choked back tears, Washington draped his arm around his teammate’s shoulders, just as Drake would have wanted.
“We’ve come to the point where we can laugh about the good times,” Spencer said. “It still hurts, but when something like that happens it’s how you respond. I feel like, as a group, we did a good job.”
Motivated by Drake’s advice and support, Spencer made some splash plays, with a 38-yard punt return and a 19-yard end-around run to set up Johnson’s touchdown.
“He would always tell me, ‘You belong in this league and you’ve got to believe that,’ ” said Spencer, who spent four seasons in the CFL. “I felt like I came out here and wasn’t thinking too much and was just out there making plays.”
Drake would have loved the plays Johnson made in the fourth quarter, even if one was nullified. Johnson caught a 24-yarder from Dobbs for what appeared to be a touchdown. A flag indicated otherwise, as Johnson was called for offensive pass interference. The play was upheld after review.
The Steelers switched quarterbacks again, and Devlin Hodges found Johnson on a third-and-5 for a 14-yard gain to the Steelers 39. Seven plays later, Hodges hooked up with Johnson for another 24-yarder that was signaled a touchdown.
Again, the play went to review. Again, the replay upheld the call. This time, it was official. Johnson finished with three catches for 46 yards, including his first NFL touchdown. Tomlin called Johnson’s debut “a good place to build upon.”
“I’m supposed to have two,” Johnson said, with a laugh, “but I can only do what I can do and control what I can control.”
What Johnson could control was this: He shut out the noise and made plays, just as Drake would have wanted.
“That’s the motto,” Washington said, “all year long.”
The Steelers won’t just wear it on their shirts but in their hearts, a mantra for a man who is far from forgotten.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .