What the Steelers lost and gained while bracing for the Patriots

Training camp and the preseason were many things for the Steelers. They’ve emerged with a confidence and an identity that’s about to be tested, beginning with the regular-season opener on Sept. 8 in New England against the Patriots.

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The preseason was many things for the Steelers.

Intriguing, inspiring, surprising, frustrating, entertaining and devastating all fit the description.

It’s almost time to begin obsessing over the regular-season opener on Sept. 8 at New England.

But first, a quick look back:

Most Emotional Moment –– The prayer circle in the middle of Chuck Noll Field on the day the Steelers returned to practice in the wake of the death of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake: It started with the wide receivers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger taking a knee and embracing. Other players and coaches gradually noticed, joined the group and grieved with their teammates. They eventually emerged wiping away tears and consoling one another.

Training Camp 2019 will forever be remembered most for what the Steelers lost.

Happiest Camper –– Safety Kameron Kelly: He wasn’t drafted as a rookie out of San Diego State. He was cut by the Cowboys and then worked parking cars and for a moving company that included the Cowboys among its clients. He’s a refugee from the now-defunct Alliance of American Football. And he was an afterthought during OTAs in the spring.

But as the preseason finale at Carolina approached Kelly locked like a lock not just to make the 53-man roster, but also to play significant defensive snaps in extra-defensive backs sub-packages. No one has come farther faster than Kelly.

Most Defining Play –– Second-and-4 from the Tennessee 23-yard line with 5:51 left in the first quarter in preseason game No. 3 in Nashville: It’s what took place before James Conner’s 3-yard run that has the potential to resonate. Roethlisberger noticed wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was tired and sent him out of the game. Smith-Schuster dutifully headed for the sideline. No Gatorade containers were sent flying upon his arrival. No emotional meltdown occurred.

Smith-Schuster returned to the game moments later and caught a 17-yard touchdown pass.

“I think that’s what is special and can be special about this group is the selflessness,” Roethlisberger said afterward. “I think you’re going to see more of that than you probably ever have on this team, that guys will be OK kind of subbing out and rooting for their buddy to score and to do good things and make plays for us.”

Added Smith-Schuster: “No one was selfish. You can go a couple series without guys touching the ball and there’s no difference in their facial expression when they get the ball and they don’t get the ball because we all know that as long as we move the ball and we score everybody wins.”

Best One-Liner –– Players, coaches and scouts traditionally have a never-ending supply of those whenever football is discussed, on and especially off the record. This anonymous description of an unnamed player who apparently plays with more energy and effort than intelligence and discipline stands out as this summer’s best: “He’s got a great motor, but his hands ain’t on the steering wheel.”

Best Look Ahead –– Center Maurkice Pouncey on having to open the regular-season against the defending-champion Patriots at New England: “Hell, we can open up in Alaska. We better come to play football, that’s all that matters.”

It wasn’t quite Mike Mitchell’s pre-playoffs rant from a few season’s back (“We can play them in hell. We can play them in Haiti. We can play them in New England.”).

But Pouncey still managed to capture the spirit of the thing.

Related: Steelers Challenge: Making the Most of Big Ben’s Final Years

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section