Steelers begin regular-season preparation minus drama of previous years
For the third Labor Day in a row, a veteran’s contract was the talk of the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room when players reported to work to begin preparations for the season opener.
The only difference Monday was that the news had nothing to do with Le’Veon Bell and whether he would end his stalemate.
The Steelers officially announced a three-year deal for cornerback Joe Haden, a contract that was finalized about 12 hours earlier and came without the threat of a holdout or anyone sitting out training camp.
Contrast that to 2017 when Bell ended his months-long absence on Labor Day by signing his franchise-tag tender and practicing for the first time with the season opener looming six days away. Or last season when Bell spurned the Steelers by electing to extend his vacation into the regular season, a decision that caused several veteran players to lash out in frustration when it became apparent Bell had jilted his teammates.
Instead, it was business as usual Monday for the Steelers as they started to game plan for the New England Patriots in the NBC showcase game Sunday night at Gillette Stadium. The atmosphere was no different than it has been virtually every day since offseason workouts began in the spring without Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.
“We don’t have to worry about guys holding out this year,” defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said. “Our main focus is having all 53 players available, going up there with 46 ready to kick some tail.”
Haden’s contract was the only impending financial order of business hanging over the Steelers after they concluded the preseason schedule. And those talks never got acrimonious, with Haden expressing optimism about getting a new deal since the day in late July that the Steelers reported to training camp.
While Bell didn’t play in any preseason games for his new team, the New York Jets, and Brown’s debut in Oakland was overshadowed by issues with his feet and two grievances he filed over his outdated helmet, the Steelers have been free of distractions, notwithstanding the unexpected death of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.
“Things have just rolled,” veteran guard Ramon Foster said. “This is how it’s supposed to operate.”
It took a few drama-free months for that concept to sink in for Foster, who was among the players upset last year when Bell didn’t report for the first week of the season.
“At the time, you didn’t know what it was. It was normal for us,” Foster said. “Even with everything that was going on, it was normal, especially for the guys who had been here. (Bell and Brown) operated in a way that commanded who they were.
“I thought it was normal and didn’t think too much of it until you have a year of this. It’s a lot different tempo.”
One that the Steelers are embracing as they prepare for the season. Center Maurkice Pouncey was an outspoken critic of Bell last September when the Pro Bowl running back extended his holdout beyond the preseason, but he said the media made it a bigger issue than the players in the locker room.
“We approach it the same way, we go out there, we try to get better every day. All the other elements fall into place,” he said. “You can’t predict those things. I think the past couple years some things were blown out of proportion. Maybe rightfully so, maybe not, but at the end of the day we are just happy where we are now.”
How long the Steelers remain happy, of course, will depend on how many games they win. In their first season without Bell, they finished 9-6-1 and missed the playoffs for the first time in five years. This season, they will be without Bell and Brown for the first time in a decade.
“We’ve had some subtraction in some key places, an they are all-world players,” Foster said. “Hats off the Le’Veon and Antonio, but the train forever rolls on. We’ve kind of had that motto here for a while. You’re either on or you’re off. Those guys are gone, so I say it sincerely when I say good luck to them.
“Considering last year, I think our team is really good. I like the way we’re flying under the radar. I like the way we’ve worked in camp. I like the guys we’ve got in this room.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .