Anatomy of a 'wild' Steelers season

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Pro Bowl is supposed to offer a cushy remedy for playoff heartache. Players once shell-shocked by a late-season loss are reminded they are on vacation in Florida, still rich and still famous.

A 13-win season that ends in a Pro Bowl isn't as pleasant as Alejandro Villanueva would have hoped.

"When you’re able to share victory with your teammates, it feels better than when you come here individually," Villanueva said last month after an AFC practice. "You were close to a Super Bowl and now you’re watching from the couch."

The 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers season was fully stocked with every storyline imaginable: star player tantrums, internal issues over the anthem, a devastating injury that shook the locker room, trade requests, questions about discipline, a franchise sack leader trying to force his way out of town and a ton of wins.

Players have had weeks to process the aftermath.

"It was a wild season," center Maurkice Pouncey said. "So many ups and downs. I'm so proud how mature our team was in handling things."

The anthem

Months later, many players still cite the botched anthem protest in Week 3 as the wildest moment of the season because of the broad reach of a story they never wanted to spark.

Villanueva, the man at the center of the storm, quickly saw the Steelers losing their grip on the story.

"There were things being said out there, from the White House all the way to politicians; news channels were filtering news and trying to shape the news," Villanueva said. "The dangerous thing about it was to become the center of that controversy. We didn’t want to be the San Francisco 49ers. We didn’t want to be a team constantly dealing with these divisive issues."

The issue caused temporary fractures in the locker room, with cliques forming in some cases. Villanueva appreciates the assist from his teammate, Pouncey, who tempered things when telling the media the entire team would stand for Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens. Pouncey was adamant -- kneeling was not an option; protests of social injustice can be done on a weekday.

Pouncey believed he did the right thing, and team president Art Rooney told him he was thankful for his words. But Pouncey was a bit uneasy about team unity when standing on the sideline of M&T Bank Stadium that week.

"I was thinking that, too: I wonder if someone is going to disrespect us in this game [by kneeling]," Pouncey said. "That ain’t going to be the distraction for the game, it’s going to be me and him.”

The cooler

Defensive end Cam Heyward, a team captain along with Ben Roethlisberger, believes the Steelers were "locked in" all year -- yes, including the playoffs -- in part because of what they overcame during the year.

But the weekly attention heaped on the Steelers was unnecessary, Heyward said.

"We overcame a lot," Heyward said. "We have tough-minded guys. ... We've just got to make smarter decisions. Guys got to grow."

One example was Antonio Brown's Week 4 Gatorade cooler meltdown, which led to public criticisms from Roethlisberger, which led to the two stars hashing out misunderstandings that some believed stemmed from the handling of the anthem protests. In Baltimore, Brown was upset that a slick double move didn't result in a big play.

Heyward called the cooler incident "food for the outside noise." But Pouncey noted that Roethlisberger and Brown quickly moved on from any issues they might have had.

"Ben is a true leader," Pouncey said. "Maybe he thought some things about it. But he knows how to approach things, and he knows how to talk to somebody as a professional and as a man. They probably had their differences and talked things out, and that is what it is."

The way Villanueva sees it, media dramatizes relationship dynamics that "aren't weird or unique to the Pittsburgh Steelers," such as showing emotion on a sideline.

Plus, Brown gets every benefit of the doubt. "He's such a hard worker that you can’t ever really get mad at him," Villanueva said. "He’s come from the bottom. He built his reputation. He helps a lot of players who are trying to make a career out of football."

Tomlin discipline

The Jacksonville loss caused Steelers fans to question everything, including the head coach. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report about Le'Veon Bell showing up late to a walk-through didn't help the growing perception that the Steelers were too loose -- or looking ahead to New England -- entering the biggest stretch of the year.

But players outlined Mike Tomlin's approach to discipline in monetary terms: Instead of punishing the entire team with benchings (save the rare case, such as Martavis Bryant ripping a teammate and requesting a trade), the coach's fines range from $1,500 to $6,000 for missed meetings or walk-throughs.

"If a guy walks in late, you're fined $1,500. It’s that simple," Pouncey said. "Each time, it goes up in price."

One veteran Steeler said players showed up on time more often than in 2016, when Roethlisberger said at midseason the Steelers may be lacking in discipline. A couple of players were late here and there, the teammate said, but the issue was far from widespread, and Bell wasn't considered a problem in this area.

Defense is Tomlin's specialty, and though he was active in defensive meetings from a planning standpoint, he didn't micromanage the jobs of coordinator Keith Butler and the position coaches, the veteran said.

"All players respect him," Pouncey said. "You can’t have a winning season like we had if players don’t respect the head coach."

Heyward called Tomlin's decision to predict fireworks with the Patriots in the Week 15 matchup "ingenious" because it deflected attention from the team and placed it squarely on himself.

Some Steelers generally like that their coach is looser than, say, Bill Belichick.

"Just because we're different than New England, people want to paint it that we're not disciplined," a veteran Steeler said. "That's not the case."

Harrison incident

Rooney was blunt when assessing Harrison's clumsy departure in late December and subsequent signing by the Patriots.

"I don't want to go into the details of what was discussed about it -- I will just say that it was disappointing when you have a player who had the type of career James had here and have it end this way," the team president said.

The decision to cut Harrison was widely believed to be Tomlin's after Harrison basically forced the organization's hand to get him out. But even the players knew a clean break was necessary, with Pouncey saying in late December that Harrison tarnished his Steeler legacy. Other teammates blasted Harrison for skipping or sleeping through meetings or leaving the facility during practices.

Pouncey was more nuanced when discussing this at the Pro Bowl, stressing that Harrison's accomplishments as the franchise's all-time sack leader can't be erased. But the vibe will be "a little different" whenever he does return to Pittsburgh.

"For me, personally, I’ve always been an organizational guy," Pouncey said. "I don’t think I’d ever do [that]. ... Maybe guys look at it differently. I know it’s a business.”

The injury

Linebacker Ryan Shazier's severe back injury, which required spinal stabilization, empowered the team, even if dealing with his loss on the field proved too difficult. From taking visitors at the hospital to eating dinner with teammates and attending team meetings, Shazier became a catalyst for the team's last four games of the regular season.

"Ryan was just so positive through it all," Heyward said. "That really galvanized us."

But there's no replacing one of the game's rangiest linebackers. His absence cast a pall over the run defense, which gave up at least 150 yards in three of the last five games. The Steelers took their frustrations out on the Houston Texans after the Week 15 loss to New England, but cracks were showing.

"We no longer had him as a safety valve," one veteran said. "We tried to cover for him collectively, but that wasn't really possible."

The lost steam

Several agree that the layoff affected the Steelers, no matter how they tried to combat it. The Week 17 Browns matchup didn't mean much, so essentially the team had nearly three weeks without its game-prep edge (though, it's worth noting the Eagles faced a similar scenario and won the Super Bowl).

The Steelers underwent a physical padded practice on the Wednesday of the bye week, but it wasn't enough.

"Maybe that's something we need to re-evaluate, the best way to prep on an off week," a veteran player said. "We tried everything. "

A few weren't thrilled with the comments coming out of the divisional-round week: safety Mike Mitchell saying the Steelers could beat the Patriots anywhere, and Bell discussing retirement. But everyone insists the Steelers laugh off awkward comments from teammates. "We'll just make fun of you," the veteran player said.

By game time, the Steelers feel their routine hadn't changed.

"When other stuff got questioned, I really didn’t deal with it, because at the end of the day, we were playing a playoff game, and I know everybody was locked in," Heyward said. "We just didn’t play our best performance. That's it."

The outlook

Rooney seems rather satisfied with his team, stressing the regular-season win total whenever pressed on questions of focus or drama. Though he wasn't thrilled with a few comments from players, he said, Jacksonville turning two turnovers into 14 points tells the story of the season's end more clearly.

"I would say you don’t win 13 games if you’re not a focused group," Rooney said. "To me, that kind of is the barometer that I use to say, did we have a problem here? ... We lost to a very good team in the playoffs. That's disappointing. Hopefully we can learn from that and hopefully build on the positives."

All-Pro guard David DeCastro was actually excited to talk about that rematch with the Patriots. He was just waiting until the teams reached the AFC title game to do it.

That brings DeCastro to a football truism that defines Pittsburgh's season.

“If you want to talk, you’ve got to show it on the field," DeCastro said.