Cam Heyward walked into the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room earlier this week less than 24 hours removed from a humbling home loss to Jacksonville, his portable speaker blasting a playlist that served as a not so subliminal message for a team in search of good vibes.
Al Green was up first, singing about “Love and Happiness.” Bill Withers followed, praising the optimism of a “Lovely Day.”
“Just sometimes it just needs to even out,” Heyward said Wednesday. “I don’t know if it’s a big thing or not, but positive energy is a good energy.”
Something in short supply at the moment for the Steelers (3-2), who have spent a large portion of an uneven season trying to put the right spin on one off-the-field headline after another.
There was the “botched’ decision to sit out the national anthem against Chicago last month, one that was meant to serve as a symbol of unity but ended with left tackle Alejandro Villanueva saluting the colors by himself while his teammates stood in the tunnel 50 feet away due to a miscommunication.
A week later wide receiver Antonio Brown held a one-sided bout with a water cooler in a moment of frustration after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger failed to find him running free early in a victory over Baltimore, a “temper tantrum” that led Roethlisberger to publicly chastise Brown multiple times and led to Brown issuing yet another in a growing list of apologies for diva-like behavior.
Moments after the Jaguars came into Heinz Field and dealt Pittsburgh its worst home loss in a decade, Roethlisberger sarcastically questioned whether he still has “it” after throwing a career-high five interceptions, a comment whose intent was lost in translation on social media and elsewhere.
Throw in Le’Veon Bell’s frustration over not getting enough carries against Jacksonville’s league-worst run defense and the Pro Bowl running back’s own Twitter battle with former Steelers safety turned commentator Ryan Clark and it’s easy to forget the Pittsburgh is in first place in the AFC North heading into Sunday’s visit to unbeaten Kansas City.
Center Maurkice Pouncey good-naturedly chalked up the melodrama to “fake news.” Still, there’s also a sense that enough is enough.
“As a team I think we’ve got to learn how to grow up,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “I feel like just the NFL in general just so much noise you hear every week and people just need to focus on football. We focus on football, then we’re going to be straight.”
While Roethlisberger stressed he hasn’t lost confidence in himself, he also bristled when asked if he’d like to get back to talking about his job instead of the latest dust-up for a team that can’t seem to go more than a few days without one.
“I think you guys are much more panicked than we are,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “As you can see I’m not really shaken by last week, or nervous and worried so we’re getting ready to go play football this week.”
Something the Steelers have done only sporadically well so far, fitting a pattern that’s become almost a rite of fall during the team’s run to three straight playoff berths. Pittsburgh starts off shaky, drops a couple of seemingly winnable games against teams with a lackluster resume then gets it together late.
In 2014, the Steelers were 3-3 before going 8-2 the rest of the way to win the division. In 2015, they were 6-5 heading into December but rallied for the wild card. Last year they found themselves at 4-5 after a last-second loss to Dallas before ripping off nine straight victories to reach the AFC title game.
This year was supposed to be different. So far, it’s not. Yet there are no concerns about a snowball effect from the distractions — each sparked by the actions of a player or players before mushrooming — having some sort of long-term effect.
“It’s a long season, not everything is going to be perfect,” Heyward said. “There’s going to be tempers, there’s going to be stuff said. It’s just about tempers and focusing on what you can control.”
And that focus is on shoring up a run defense that’s been erratic and getting an offense long on talent but short on touchdowns into something resembling a rhythm and not trying to sew up any signs of dissension, because they insist there aren’t any.
“When we had that anthem thing, that’s probably the first time since I’ve been here we’ve had to really sit down and have a discussion on something other than football,” said Moats, who signed with the Steelers in 2014. “Any other time, it’s just media being media or just fans being fans and we just leave it at the door.”
Of course, Moats and the rest of his teammates know there’s one simple way to put it all to rest.
“Ultimately we go out here and win this week, people won’t be talking about this anymore,” Moats said. “Just got to go out here and win.”