If Cam Heyward’s being honest, he’s lost count of distractions the Pittsburgh Steelers have dealt with this season, be they self-created, overblown or otherwise.
The weeks would pass and something that had nothing to do with Pittsburgh’s relatively easy push to a second straight AFC North title and third in four years would pop up. There was running back Le’Veon Bell’s decision to skip training camp . Antonio Brown’s one-sided bout with a water cooler in Baltimore in October. Or rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’s stolen bike . Or Martavis Bryant’s ill-timed and ultimately ignored trade request.
The list goes on and on. Yet at nearly every turn, the outside noise would be drowned out for three hours every week while the Steelers put together a 13-3 record, a fourth consecutive playoff appearance and a first-round postseason bye. Even a well-deserved week off didn’t pass quietly, with offensive coordinator Todd Haley limping around after getting hurt during an incident at a bar near Heinz Field shortly after Pittsburgh wrapped up the regular season with a victory over Cleveland.
“I think we’ve shunned it to an extent to where it doesn’t really faze us,” Heyward said. “I couldn’t even tell you all the drama that goes on. I think we’re so focused and goal-oriented when it comes to certain things, we haven’t had time to think about the little stuff. We make fun of the petty stuff. We’ll laugh at the stuff that happens.”
Maybe, but not all chaos is created equal. For a locker room that describes itself as close-knit, there was a moment of doubt. It came in the tunnel at brutally hot Soldier Field on Sept. 24. President Donald Trump’s provocative suggestion that NFL players who protest the national anthem should be fired put the Steelers in a tight spot.
Head coach Mike Tomlin told his players they could do what they wanted, so long as they were united. After failing to reach a consensus, they tried to sit it out by remaining in the tunnel as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.
One problem: left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, ducked onto the field to get a glimpse of the flag. The opening notes began before Villanueva could get back to the tunnel. He turned to face the flag, standing alone and unintentionally providing a stark visual symbol of an issue that in many ways defined the NFL’s season.
Linebacker Arthur Moats called the aftermath, which left some fans burning their jerseys and included Villanueva, Heyward and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger trying to explain how they “botched” the whole thing, the “lowest point you could get.”
“It was just a lot of factors that went into it,” Moats said. “It made it stressful.”
Ultimately, though, it didn’t divide the Steelers.
“That was something no one had ever experienced,” Heyward said. “That’s something that no one could have prepared for. I thought we handled it good internally after the situation. We got some stuff cleared out and understood it wasn’t the right way to approach it. But we learned. We lived through it.”
And they thrived. The Steelers fell to 2-1 after getting steamrolled in overtime by the Bears that afternoon. Pittsburgh lost just two games the rest of the way. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger emerged from an early funk to reach his sixth Pro Bowl. Brown led the NFL in yards receiving despite missing the final 2 1/2 games with a left calf injury the team hopes will be healed in time for the conference semifinals. Bell’s decision to skip camp ended up saving his legs. A year after watching most of an AFC title game loss to New England with a groin worn down by a heavy workload, Bell is fresh.
Just as important, Pittsburgh has built up an immunity to what Tomlin calls “outside noise,” even if it’s not outside at all.
Last January, Tomlin spent the week between a road playoff win in Kansas City and a visit to New England for the AFC championship game dealing with Brown’s decision to stream video from the victorious locker room on Facebook. Don’t expect that to happen this time around.
“We treat things that happen like anybody else should,” wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “You get pulled over for speeding, you get the ticket. You hopefully learn. That’s kind of like that. It’s different tickets but once that ticket happens, it’s like, ‘Oh, don’t do that one. I got you.’ I know it sounds crazy, but it works for us. Everybody knows, ‘Don’t bring your phone out.’ We almost laugh at it knowing, ‘Don’t do that.’ It’s just the personality of our team.”
One that’s been pointing to the 2018 Super Bowl from the minute it walked off the field in Foxborough 12 months ago.
“We have a lot of guys primed for this moment,” Heyward said. “We don’t know what our team is going to look like next year. We’ve got to make the most out of this situation. The urgency has to be felt from here on out.”
Is the urgency strong enough to make sure the turmoil of the fall will disappear in January?
“Ask me in three weeks,” Heyward said. “We’re still fighting off some demons right now.”