Why the Steelers Didn't Just Fold

How defiance, togetherness and Mike Tomlin propelled Pittsburgh to survive and even thrive in a season of adversity.
photo of Tyler Dunne Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterDecember 26, 2019

Each week, each player is reminded what's expected. The standard, as they preach around here, is the standard. As soon as any Steelers player exits the locker room, he sees photos from the previous week's game lining the hallway. Through the double doors, into the main lobby, there's a collage of Steelers greatness past plastered on a wall.

The Super Bowl is the bar. Period.

So, here is Bud Dupree. A man accepting that reality.

After taking his daily stroll past those images, the Steelers edge-rusher turns right into the cafeteria, where a skillet sizzles and a few teammates are picking up food to go. He sets down his backpack and then his phone with its faded-red case and cracked screen. It's 3:45 p.m. on a Thursday. He leans forward in a Jordan brand hoodie and reels off the absurdity in Pittsburgh.

The stars who left. The injuries. The tragedy. It all brought this Steelers team closer together, he begins, and all made them view Mike Tomlin as more than a coach. Rather, a true "mentor." A father figure.

Then, Dupree is suddenly and seamlessly reliving his own past 12 months. Right here, he realizes just how closely his rise mirrors the Steelers' rise in a season that should've cascaded into chaos long ago.

The 6'4", 269-pounder received death threats and racial slurs. Fans wrote him off as a bust going into his fifth NFL season. His sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—out of nowhere. He's been wrenching off the leeches begging him for money, one by one. His next child is due Jan. 9. He's a free agent in March.

Through it all, Dupree has been devouring quarterbacks. One sack at a time—squeezing his fists, flexing his muscles, posing like a conquering hero with his dreads spilling out from his helmet—Dupree is exploding into everything Tomlin could've ever dreamed of: a true predator in pads. And he is not alone. This team is loaded with badasses capable of slaying any obstacle.

So, exactly 32 minutes into this conversation, it hits Dupree. The answer to everyone's question outside of this building.

How the most improbable story of this 2019 NFL season—the Pittsburgh Steelers making the playoffs—is even possible.

"What people should know is that we're never going to give up," Dupree says. "Coach Tomlin, when he drafts guys, he drafts guys he knows who can handle the fight, can handle adversity, who can handle situations, who will never bend, never fold. If you beat us, you're just going to beat us. But we're never going to give up."

Not even now? After losing to the New York Jets on Sunday and putting themselves on the edge of elimination?

A loss to the Jets is nothing.

Countless times, these Steelers should have shattered into a million pieces.

Their Hall of Fame quarterback suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. Stars Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown had exited for good...and the players replacing them suffered a slew of injuries. A coach died. A quarterback was attacked with a helmet. A center was suspended. A quarterback nicknamed "Duck," who served as a fourth-stringer in training camp, took over as the starter.

Hope repeatedly should have been suffocated, yet it only grew. 

So...how? B/R talked to everyone it could in Pittsburgh over three weeks to find out how, and there's undoubtedly true football natural selection playing out on the shores of the Monongahela River. All players at the Steelers practice facility are trained to be predators. They are trained to believe there is no moment that could possibly break this team.

One name keeps coming up.

"Coach Tomlin," Dupree says. "When situations happen, he taught us how to get through it."

The day before, the wide receivers coach shouted what he always did to Joe Haden. As he saw Haden trot onto the practice field at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Darryl Drake bellowed, "Joe! You're a bad motherfucker!"

That was the ritual. Expected. One of many unique relationships Drake had cultivated. 

Which made the next 24 hours so surreal for Haden and everyone else. 

Haden was getting treatment early in the morning of Sunday, Aug. 11, when he spotted an ambulance speeding toward the dormitory. And as he walked toward that dorm for Tomlin's morning meeting, word started to spread. He heard one player say Drake died, yelled back "Shut the fuck up!" and then heard Tomlin deliver the numbing news to the entire team. 

Drake, at 62, indeed had died.

"Everybody's in there crying," Haden says. "It's fucking crazy. We were with him the day before. You go to sleep for camp. You wake up. And Coach isn't in the same spot. Everybody loved Coach Drake."

Slot corner Mike Hilton calls this one of the worst moments of his life.

"It makes you not even want to be there," Hilton says. "It was tough for everybody."

Especially for Tomlin. Tomlin hired Drake. When Tomlin was a receivers coach at Arkansas State in 1997, he heard that Drake, then an offensive coordinator at Baylor, was one of the best receivers coaches in the nation. So he called and nagged, and Drake was beyond helpful. A coaching kinship was forged. 

Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler believes Drake's death was one of the hardest things Tomlin has ever dealt with in his life. 

Darryl Drake
Darryl DrakeKeith Srakocic/Associated Press

In an extremely fragile moment that could've emotionally smothered his team for good, Tomlin did not force a message. In that room, Tomlin admitted he didn't have the words to comfort players. He said he was there to talk to anyone who needed him. He brought in counselors. He gave players two days off. When the Steelers did return to practice, JuJu Smith-Schuster ran a few routes before he needed to sit down and weep. Drake had become a father figure for him.

Drake wasn't only tight with the receivers. Everyone loved him. Nobody had any answers, so everybody simply "stuck together," Butler says.

The Steelers embraced. Cried on each other's shoulders. Moved on, somehow, and Haden's voice skips a beat explaining how life possibly moved on. 

"I keep going back to Coach T, because if it wasn't for him, I don't think...this whole thing wouldn't be like this. It wouldn't be like this. No way."

Guard Ramon Foster has forever cast a Buddha-like presence in this locker room. The 11-year vet is a wise, honest, open book to all. He's seen it all in Pittsburgh. The ups, the downs, the drama. And, surely, there had to be drama through the month of September. The Steelers were first embarrassed by the New England Patriots 33-3...then lost Ben Roethlisberger for the season...then started this season 1-4.

The ship was sinking, which means everyone on board was screaming and panicking and fighting over lifeboats...right?

Not even close.

After a mid-December practice, seated on a stool, Foster sees 65 unread messages on his cellphone. He sighs, carefully stuffs the phone back into his locker and kicks back to explain.

What appeared disastrous to outsiders wasn't close to disastrous inside. Because of Tomlin. As the season careened off a cliff, the coach maintained his stern calm. The coach repeated one of his go-to lines—"Don't tell people about your problems, because they're either glad you got 'em or don't want to hear 'em"—and kept on supplying brutal truths after each loss.

"'This is why you lost. This is why you didn't capitalize on this,'" Foster remembers. "Have you ever had a talk with somebody like, you're cool with them but you don't want to piss him off? That's him. He's that uncle who gives you the leash, like, 'Hey, go do your thing, run around the neighborhood. But if you break a window, I'm going to have to sit your ass.' You don't want to let him down."

After the 33-3 loss to the Patriots, Tomlin told everyone they got their ass kicked, and they moved on. After Roethlisberger went down, there wasn't a hint of exasperation in Tomlin's face. Because this head coach, center Maurkice Pouncey says, knows only one reaction.

"There's no blink in his eyes, and there's no fear," Pouncey says. "It was: 'Next man up. Let's get it.'"

Nobody panicking, no heretics, no "coaches flipping on players" and "players flipping on coaches," as Haden experienced too often with his previous employer, the Cleveland Browns.

Taking their cue from Tomlin, everyone here was feeling something far different loss after loss: encouragement. Those brutally honest film sessions proved they were one play away from beating the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens. Hence an utter absence of any "The house is on fire!" bedlam, defensive tackle Cameron Heyward says. 

Which is not the norm. Not in 2019. We're all supposed to overreact to everything in real time. 

Inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky—who played for the Steelers' two previous coaches, Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, before joining Tomlin's staff—puts it best. 

"When the crap hits the fan," Olsavsky says, "you can run away from the fan or you can shut the fan off. We shut the fan off." 

And here's how the Steelers did exactly that: On Sept. 16, they shipped a first-rounder to the Miami Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick and transformed their defense into a juggernaut. 

That trade injected instant hope that would spread with each snap Fitzpatrick played. He's the ticking time bomb in the middle of a defense that has 51 sacks (second in NFL), 19 interceptions (second) and 17 recovered fumbles (first) heading into Week 17. 

For years, the Steelers defense has abided by a goal sheet that includes a mandate to hold offenses to 17 points per game. They've done that nine times. 

Players all remember a rush of euphoria when the trade went down, when Tomlin went all-in. 

"He could've easily said, 'Let's tank. Let's get a high draft pick,'" Pouncey says. "No, that motherfucker wants to win. ...Everyone was happy as fuck. I was at the house like, 'No way is happening!' That just showed the team that we ain't tanking. We're going to do whatever we have to do to go out there and win. That was a big thing for the team. When [general manager] Kevin Colbert and Coach Tomlin did that, we were like, 'Alright, they're not fucking around.'" 

Fitzpatrick was equally electrified because he wanted out of Miami. Badly. 

How the Dolphins were using him was frustrating, but more than anything, he didn't like how their actions didn't meet their words. They talked about not tanking, yet they sent Kenny Stills and Laremy Tunsil to the Houston Texans for draft compensation on the eve of the season.

Fitzpatrick became a Steeler, and the culture difference was night-and-day. 

"It definitely lit a fire underneath me," he says.

Minkah Fitzpatrick
Minkah FitzpatrickRon Schwane/Associated Press

Practically everyone outside of Pittsburgh painted the trade as delusional. The Steelers were convincing themselves that they could contend without Roethlisberger when they clearly could not. But to the Steelers, this was a rare chance to add a blue-chipper, an 11th overall pick they'd almost never have a shot at otherwise. Since they often pick in the 20s, they never get this opportunity, Butler points out

Fitzpatrick isn't Troy Polamalu—"not yet"—but Butler is hopeful that he'll get there. 

He fit perfectly. Right into everything Tomlin does behind the scenes. 

A stern "don't mess this up" attitude permeates life here 24/7, Foster says. When Tomlin spotted one young player getting onto the team plane in a flashy jacket more fit for a nightclub, instead of a suit and tie, he nodded to Foster and said, "Mone, let him know." Foster did. Snapping his fingers, Foster says that player got in line immediately. 

When safety Kameron Kelly is arrested for making terroristic threats and resisting arrest, he is cut hours later.

Many teams tend to treat Fridays with tender love and care midseason. Not the Steelers. Here, Heyward explains, they have a period called "seven shots." The ball is placed at the 2-yard line and the offense has seven plays to score. In camp, they're in pads. In season, they're in shells, but it's always hypercompetitive.

"We compete like hell," Heyward says.

Everyone is blown away by Tomlin's defensive acumen. Pouncey has seen him meeting with linebackers and safeties at 6 a.m and is convinced the coach sleeps in his office many nights. He's always scheming. Always thinking. Olsavsky says Tomlin knows, just like Noll and Cowher, precisely when to console and when to discipline on a player-by-player basis.

Coaches can spend a decade in the league and never come close to mastering this personal touch.

But there's Haden talking about fatherhood with Tomlin in his corner of the locker room.

And there's the entire team, in a Saturday night meeting, ready to go to war. 

The coach loves studying apex predators on YouTube. Lions. Sharks. Animals at the top of the food chain. He'll rip through National Geographic clips and then relay everything he's learned, like how a lion needs to eat 20 pounds of meat each day. How it doesn't matter if it's a human or a hyena—a lion needs to eat. And at one a recent meeting the night before a game, Tomlin went from showing his entire team clips of plays to...a huge picture of a great white shark. 

"We're all high-predator athletes," he told the team. "We're all great white sharks."

Players loved it.

Fitzpatrick was the perfect predator to add at the perfect time. But he isn't alone. 

Wander into any NFL locker room and you're bound to be doused with "Next Man Up" propaganda. It's practically written into every player's contract to recite the stump phrase whenever a teammate is injured.

Here, those words have real substance. 

Predators are stepping up. Everywhere. 

Take it from inside linebacker Vince Williams, the defense's angry sledgehammer. He first assures that the Steelers do not bring wussies into this locker room and, no, he didn't use the word wussies. Wear this uniform, he declares, and the demands are the same. You must make the play. You must believe in yourself. And that makes it easy to promote from within. Nobody here gives a damn if you were a third- or fourth-stringer at one point.

"We're counting on your ass," Williams says.

Not tough enough? You'll be gone.

"You're not going to want to be around," he says, glaring. "Either you fit or you don't fit. I've met guys who came here through free agency and they didn't fit. They don't last. They're gone. But the people who do stick, they do last."

Like Haden, who spent seven years in football hell (Cleveland) before coming here. A new QB is nothing for him. ("I've been through this. Fifteen quarterbacks. Not even being sarcastic.")

Like Hilton, who went undrafted. Who, at 5'9," once lasted all of eight days on the Patriots' practice squad and has been told his entire life that he's too small. ("I feed off of that energy.")

Like Fitzpatrick, whose family was displaced by Hurricane Irene in high school. They moved from a shelter to his grandmother's house—he remembers eight people living in her basement. Fitzpatrick attended high school an hour away, living wherever he could during the school year. A coach's house. A teammate's house. Another teammate's house. And when he visited colleges, his family didn't have money for a hotel, so they usually slept in the car. Those memories still stick with him. ("You have to be built to last.") 

Like Dupree.

Finally, his mind is crystal clear. The linebacker feels like he can just play football, and what a glorious feeling that is. Heading into this season, Dupree made a point to sit back and analyze everyone in his life—Who's an asset and who's a liability?—and eliminated the liabilities. Those "troublemakers" and "leeches" asking Dupree for money every other day, asking him to Venmo them anywhere from $20 to (seriously) $20,000. All gone.

Bud Dupree
Bud DupreeGene J. Puskar/Associated Press/Associated Press

Those are the people who know Dupree. The ones who don't, who were unhappy with his sack total, have been much worse.

Yes, Dupree has received death threats. And, yes, the racial slurs have included the N-word.

"Everything," he says. "Everything."

The worst part was not being able to respond because the response is what everybody would see. The response would nuke his reputation because, Dupree admits, "if I say and do what I want to do to this person, football is not going to be an option."

He's had more serious issues in his life, too. More life-changing matters than tweets and handouts.

At the tail end of last season, his sister Zoria collapsed. She was eventually diagnosed with MS. The whole ordeal was scary—"real scary." Her vision would come and go, and nobody knew at the time if she'd be able to walk again. While there's no cure for MS, Dupree is doing everything he can to help his 21-year-old sister, the one he taught how to play basketball back in the day. It's instinctual, really. 

When he isn't molding himself into one of the sport's most fearsome pass rushers—Dupree is up to 65 tackles, 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles on the season—he's researching the disease. The second he read that going vegan could help, he called Zoria, convinced her to change up her diet, and that helped. So has all of her medicine. She's doing better.

"It showed me you never know what could happen in life," Dupree says. "Be thankful for every day."

All of this has cleared Dupree's mind like never before.

Oh, Tomlin knew damn well that Dupree was built to get through anything. The Steelers had talked to everyone on the Kentucky campus about him before selecting him with the 22nd overall pick in 2015. They loved the fact that his family drove six-and-a-half hours to watch his pro day live. Now, he's finishing the plays he's always been so close to making. 

"My journey," Dupree promises, "is far from over."

So while other teams preach "Next Man Up," Williams sneers, they don't really believe it. They're regurgitating B.S.

Here, no slack is given. Not even to Devlin Hodges. 

Use the words fourth string, and Williams scowls. "We don't give a shit about none of that!" he says, volume rising.

Duck is the QB, so Duck is expected to perform. Williams doesn't want him checking down. No, he wants him gunning the ball downfield. With guts, with conviction.

Such is the habitat created here.

Haden sees no dead weight. Anywhere. When a scout-team receiver balls out, he yells to coaches, "Activate this guy!" 

This culture goes back decades. Olsavsky remembers playing linebacker here through the '90s and seeing legends from the '70s passing through all the time. Once, Mel Blount walked in—in cowboy boots—splattered his hands in chalk and beat a current player's vertical leap by six inches.

Images like this stick with players. The standard, indeed, is clear. Tomlin's kept it clear.

So what's a 1-4 start to the season?

"If you just stay in there a little bit," Olsavsky says, "you'll punch through and you've got something."

These fighters are punching through.

Literally, too.

The "Free Pouncey" hoodies remain in style. When the Steelers herd back into the locker room after frigid practices, when they take off their shoulder pads, you can see many still paying homage to their hero, their captain, who was suspended two games for, well, being a great white. 

When Cleveland's Myles Garrett ripped the helmet off Mason Rudolph in Week 11 and swung that helmet at the quarterback's skull, Pouncey knew one response: Throw as many punches as possible. 

CLEVELAND, OHIO - NOVEMBER 14: Quarterback Mason Rudolph #2 of the Pittsburgh Steelers fights with defensive end Myles Garrett #95 of the Cleveland Browns during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 14, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Browns de
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Forget the $35,096 fine. The center assures "it was worth it" and says he'd "100 percent" do it all again. 

When one of your brothers is attacked, Dupree says, "you have to do exactly what he did." 

This should've been another moment that incinerated the 2019 Steelers. That game ended in a 21-7 loss and dropped their record to 5-5. Rudolph threw four picks (and suffered God knows what brain damage). Pouncey was suspended. Hope, it seemed, was exterminated.

Only, it was not. Tomlin didn't pen a rah-rah speech those precious days after the brawl. Nor did he go full Braveheart going into the Browns rematch in Week 13. No player heard Tomlin mention the Browns once, in fact. He let guys wear those hoodies and only told them to set a tone.

Pittsburgh did with a 20-13 victory that all-but extinguished any remaining playoff hope in Cleveland, and the Steelers grew even closer as a team. 

What a difference a year makes.

Exactly one year ago, Antonio Brown quit on this team. Looking back, players repeat that Tomlin didn't make them pick sides between Roethlisberger and AB. Instead, he let it play out and, as Foster says, the candle on AB's tenure in Pittsburgh "burned itself out." The talent wasn't worth the headache anymore.

Guard David DeCastro adds: "You weigh the cost and benefits and at some point, you just have to move on." 

AB left. Bell left. And these remade Steelers are undeniably stronger as a unit. Even with all three Killer B's, Dupree laments, the Steelers couldn't beat the Blake Bortles-led Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2017 playoffs. 

Whatever transpired, the players here now would run through a wall for each other. 

The day before Dupree sat down to recount his and the Steelers' long year, he was horsing around with teammates in the locker room so vigorously—in a loud, mosh pit-like formation—it looked like the five players were actually fighting. They weren't. Rather, there's real love here. Real connections. They're going to each other's barbecues—Heyward hosts huge get-togethers. Going to Dupree's baby shower and going to Ryan Shazier's son's birthday party. 

Therein lies one secret to the togetherness. When Shazier suffered his horrific spinal injury two years ago, players constantly visited him in the hospital, and he told them that they needed to do more together. They're still taking that to heart.

"Sha' wanted us to take it back to how the old school did back in the days," Dupree says. "To be with each others' families and really get to know each other."

Tomlin has always wanted the locker room to be an organic place that polices itself. While other teams cancel a dog day of training camp to go skeet-shooting or play dodgeball, splashing all of the fun on the team website, nothing is forced here. 

"People try to do it, but it's also fake when they do it," Pouncey says. "This shit is genuine." 

So to hell with any analytics that any computer spits out. Pouncey is convinced this matters. This leads to wins. He points to Nick Foles and how those 2017 Philadelphia Eagles gravitated toward him, how they shocked the world. He cannot help but think, Why not us? They, too, have a brotherhood. They, too, are rallying behind a backup QB.

If Duck can somehow pull a Foles, you better believe Pouncey will go duck hunting with him.

"I'll do whatever he wants!" he says. "I'll run out there with the dogs and pick 'em all up!" 

The road to the Super Bowl for all AFC teams goes through the MVP front-runner who jukes like Allen Iverson, spins like he's hitting the circle button and, hey, why not, also leads the NFL in touchdown passes. But, no, evoking the name Lamar Jackson does not make the Steelers shake in terror. 

"Lamar is stoppable," Dupree says, although he qualifies that "it's not going to be easy to stop him."

It's more difficult than ever to corral a mobile quarterback, with defenders never knowing if he will slide or run. And here's Jackson. To Dupree, the key is to "shoot your shot." The Steelers will attack this looming obstacle the only way they know how. 

Like that apex predator. 

If your assignment is Lamar on those run-pass options, drill Lamar. That'll be the message. 

"You can't be scared," Dupree says. "You can't be nervous. You can't stop your feet. That's when he embarrasses people. We have to go out with the same intensity, same mannerisms, everything. So when he gets the ball, we have to shoot our shot."

Players also point out they held Jackson to his lowest passer rating of the season (54.9) back on Oct. 6. His longest run went for nine yards. Half of his interceptions this season happened in that game. If not for a bogus roughing-the-passer penalty teeing up a field goal that forced overtime, the Steelers know they would've won. So they want another shot at him with everything on the line. 

This cocksure attitude only grew with each win.

After his sack-fumble finished the Cincinnati Bengals, Dupree didn't hold back. Bring on Lamar.

After seeing Hodges rainbow bombs against the Browns, Foster let his mind wander, too: "If Duck catches on...it could get really, really serious for us."

After intercepting the Arizona Cardinals' Kyler Murray twice, Haden said this defense would only need 10 points from the offense to win before quickly changing his mind on the spot because this entire unit is too stacked. To him, "donuts" should be the standard. As in shutouts. 

Then came those back-to-back losses. Then came a reason for all players to change their tune.

There were the Buffalo Bills mocking these proud Steelers during "Renegade" at Heinz Field, gyrating their hips and swinging parkas and playing air drums.

There was Hodges floating wounded ducks into no man's land. He'd get benched against the Jets, only to return when Rudolph suffered another injury. Both have been equally hideous.

There were Pouncey (knee) and Dupree (shoulder) and, again, James Conner (quad) joining the infirmary.

There was the defense, in both losses, making the plays it always does...and it still not being enough.

To all of us on the outside, this looks like a team ripping apart at the seams. 

Inside the locker room, right past the "Standard is the Standard" inscribed on the wall, players spoke barely above a whisper after the Bills loss. Their swagger was unshaken.

"Everybody has to look in the mirror," Heyward said. "We're not going to run away from this—attack it, get better. 

"We're hardened for it. We wouldn't expect anything different." 

Across the room, Dupree even blamed himself and the defense. The defense, he promised, would punch through this because "we have fighters."

Tomlin? The one everyone looks to in moments like this? He didn't say much to his team that night. Nor would he the next week. 

He didn't need to. He never needs to.


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.