How Steelers dump distractions, get back to winning tradition

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers are known for championships, unassuming class and sound business.

A bizarre series of events have camouflaged that identity of late.

Running back Le’Veon Bell’s yearlong holdout punctuated one of the messiest contract negotiations of the past decade. Complications with wide receiver Antonio Brown existed long before he became trade bait. Drama followed the Brown-Ben Roethlisberger relationship, and the quarterback has taken heat in the national media for publicly criticizing teammates.

The Steelers’ locker room is stocked with low-key players who want to work and win games. And the front office hasn’t changed its proven approach. But the distractions have turned into an avalanche that the Steelers haven’t quite plowed through yet.

“Hopefully, it will pass and it will be all about football [in 2019],” said defensive end Tyson Alualu, who signed a two-year extension on Friday and who often gets asked what’s going on with the Steelers. “That will be great for our team.”

The organization has the next seven months to regain its signature touch.

The Big Ben leadership dynamic: The franchise is prepared to defend and support Roethlisberger in any way possible. He is the only current Steeler with Super Bowl rings and the longevity to bridge two generations of Steelers football.

That’s part of the reason general manager Kevin Colbert has come to Roethlisberger’s defense, labeling the 15-year quarterback the team’s “unquestioned leader” who has the expertise and experience to criticize players or even the GM. In a quarterback-centric league, Roethlisberger gives the Steelers the best chance to win — and a chance in every game.

With Brown and Bell gone, the spotlight will be on Roethlisberger’s leadership more than ever. The Steelers will lean on him to inspire, to lift the play of others around him.

The fallback from Roethlisberger’s in-season public criticisms of Brown was immense. Brown was privately frustrated by the slights and didn’t stay silent for long, tweeting on Feb. 16 that the quarterback has an “owner mentality.” Former teammates such as Ryan Clark and Hines Ward have said Roethlisberger should keep his concerns private.

Roethlisberger has his reasons for his approach, citing his status as a veteran and multiyear captain. And several current players have stressed they have no problem with the critiques. But Roethlisberger must decide whether that method is worth the trouble, and if further criticisms puts him at risk of alienating more teammates.

More voices heard: Roethlisberger doesn’t have to handle leadership alone. The Steelers need several tough-nosed, no-hard-feelings leaders to curb issues in 2019.

Captains such as Cam Heyward and Maurkice Pouncey are a good place to start. They can expand that group. The Pro Bowlers from the 2017 draft class — JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner and T.J. Watt — might be thrust into that mix faster than expected. Cornerback Joe Haden also has a Pro Bowl résumé to match his nine years of experience.

Fair or not, many former Steelers believe stronger locker room personalities at key positions would have assuaged some of the team’s recent problems. Some of the best locker rooms police themselves. The Steelers have enough players to embody the Steeler tradition and get that done.

With his recent comments, Colbert was defending his quarterback from the negative media attention, but he also was sending out a flare: Emerging leaders need to follow the blueprint of Roethlisberger and others.

An adaptable Mike Tomlin: Despite one of the most successful coaching runs of the past decade, Tomlin faces questions about whether he has lost his grip of the locker room and, if so, how he can take it back.

That’s a convenient storyline when a talented team underachieves and misses the playoffs. But the Brown saga didn’t help Tomlin’s cause, because of what former teammates illustrated as years of star treatment for the All-Pro.

Those who have played for Tomlin say he believes policing minutiae distracts from winning. That philosophy has largely worked. But the roster changes this offseason offer Tomlin a chance to stay true to his principles while regaining his edge with a few changes.

He can put parameters in place for repeat offenders, such as escalating those routine, in-house fines to actual “conduct detrimental to the team” violations — which levy heftier fines coming out of the game-week check. He also can get assistant help for sideline functions such as challenges and clock management.

Tomlin has the ability to pump up intensity in all areas. He did so after the team’s 4-5 start in 2016. Every sprint was run correctly, every fine went checked. The team railed off seven straight wins to make the playoffs.

Tomlin’s ability to rally his team is underrated, and it will serve him well in a season that lacks the star power of past years.

“I accept responsibility, and I foster and develop every aspect of our culture,” Tomlin said shortly after the season. “That’s this game. That’s leadership. You embrace and respect and honor all aspects of that, certainly.”

Find pieces that fit: The Steelers’ talent drain is real. Bell and Brown are top-10 players, and linebacker Ryan Shazier wasn’t far behind before his spinal injury in 2017.

But the Steelers must hope to offset the loss of singular talent with a more cohesive team. Finding a true vertical threat to match Smith-Schuster’s all-around game can help. The Steelers will evaluate the need for more run-pass balance after leading the league in passing attempts by a large margin. That offers more opportunities for Conner, Jaylen Samuels and perhaps an accomplished veteran to find a rhythm.

The Steelers are still addressing the secondary after years of assigning top draft picks to the unit. Colbert singled it out as needing to improve multiple times during his media session.

Offsetting the benching of Artie Burns with a high pick or an established free agent to pair with Haden will almost certainly be considered.

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