BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens asked for fans to join them in a prayer for the country, for kindness and unity, equality and justice. When the Ravens briefly dropped to their knees before the national anthem began, the fans booed, a sign that the prayer, however well intended, might not be quite enough to heal the divisiveness that had come to the NFL’s doorstep last week.
The Pittsburgh Steelers stood stock on the opposite sideline during those few uncomfortable moments. Their own week had been riven by protest and misunderstanding and miscommunication that had left tackle Alejandro Villanueva as the unintended flashpoint, the former military man turned football player who had stood a few feet apart from his teammates last week, accidentally becoming the face of a national debate. On Sunday, Villanueva wore a black T-shirt with an abstract print of the flag in the locker room. Ravens coach John Harbaugh had thanked him for his service. A woman sat among Ravens fans, dressed in a camouflage-colored Villanueva jersey.
But by the time the Pittsburgh Steelers had finished off the Ravens 26-9 on Sunday, Villanueva was finished with all of that. The Steelers had put a bad week, and a very bad loss to the Chicago Bears, behind them. They had settled a score that had nothing to do with protest and politics and, no matter the forces that still swirl around the NFL now, had seemed to heal their own divisions.
“At this point, the whole kneeling, standing up is a much bigger issue than the things we’re asking for as a league,” Villanueva said. “We’re trying to be conscious of social issues, we’re also trying to be very respectful of the flag, and how it’s being demonstrated is taking a much larger stage than actions on the field. I respect every single player in the NFL, every single citizen, they all have their rights. I’m not into the politics of the game. I’m just a football player.”
In the blinders-on world of the NFL, this had been a week like few others, one rife with strained conversations, bruised feelings, moral dilemmas. For the Steelers, is also included something more rudimentary, but nearly as unexpected — a sputtering offense that was casting their Super Bowl aspirations in doubt. They grappled with both problems this week and, they hope, set them both aside.
A quick decision that the team would stand together this week settled that issue, at least for now. And a game plan in which the offense fed running back Le’Veon Bell the ball 35 times (just one fewer than the most by a single runner in a game against the Ravens in history) for 144 yards. The Steelers had hoped to knock off the rust that had accumulated on Bell after his training camp holdout against the Bears last week, but the game had not allowed it. This time, it worked, as Bell ran through gaping holes and allowed the Steelers to control the clock. The first drive of the game set a tone that did not change — 10 runs led to a penalty-fueled stall in the red zone, culminating in a field goal. It was a grind, but ultimately it was effective.
And it was often not pretty. Ben Roethlisberger said last week that he needed to play better, and he did. But the big plays that typically make the Steelers one of the league’s most dynamic offenses are still mostly missing. Roethlisberger pointed to an overthrow of Martavis Bryant in the end zone for what would have been a deep dagger of a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter as an example.
Not much about this week was smooth and effortless, though. Mike Tomlin was asked about the lingering effects of the protest and if that added to the satisfaction he would take from the victory.
“You don’t think, you don’t think,” Tomlin said. “Based on the result of the game, yes.”
Villanueva made it clear that he was tired of being the face of the standoff. He repeated what he said earlier in the week, that he and his teammates had tried to do the best they could, but they could not always get everything right. Now, he said ruefully, it seemed a shame that a game featuring one of the NFL’s best rivalries might be overshadowed in part by a controversy. He is a tackle, after all, used to anonymity, and he seemed almost embarrassed about how he had become a hero to some in the middle of such a contentious period.
“To wake up in the morning and see the face of coach Tomlin and the face of a soldier pitted against each other is completely unacceptable from the media,” he said. “To use me as a tool to push agendas and push messages, that’s completely unacceptable. I understand you guys are trying to make your money, but in our locker room, we’re trying to win football games.”
“Teammates issues remaining, lingering, beefs and what not, I can’t control that. I’m very close to my values and how the team perceives me, I’m pretty happy to be a member of Steelers nation.”
“It’s awesome we can get back to what we do,” he continued. “We’re not letting anything outside this locker room distract us. We’re trying to get everything right. We’re trying to honor our fans. I think today we got a step closer to that.”
For a while they have likely done that. The Steelers are 3-1, and atop what feels like a sinking division. Their offense is still sputtering — they entered the game on pace for their worst offensive output of the Roethlisberger era (302.3 yards per game), and a brief Antonio Brown snit when Roethlisberger did not look his way when he was wide open suggest things are still far from ideal. But there was a palpable exhale from the Steelers on Sunday afternoon. Owner Art Rooney II, who had participated in meetings with players at the league office and who had told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the team’s anthem actions were over as far as he was concerned, was smiling as he made his way to shake players’ hands. His team and Villanueva had already had what is likely to be their toughest week.
“In life, you’re not prepared for a lot of things,” Villanueva said. “You’re not prepared for having a kid, not prepared for being married. Just do your best. Try to make the best possible decision. The last week has been pretty stressful in terms of media reaction to my statement. It was never my intention. I make mistakes just like everybody else. I got a stupid personal foul today. I’m not a hero. I didn’t do anything in the military that was outstanding. … If you were to compare me to my peers, I was just average at best. It’s a very unfortunate chain of events that I tried to handle the best I can.”
When Villanueva was finally finished with his interviews, Roethlisberger was already dressed and ready to start his press conference. He, too, had been outspoken last week about his regret at the protests.
It is overly simplistic to think that time and a win can smooth over all the rough edges that were exposed by the president’s attack on players. The boos that rained down on the Ravens on Sunday made that apparent.
But the Steelers needed a win, and they got it. The charged national conversation on protests and perhaps even the underlying issue of racial inequality will continue, and it will undoubtedly take place in locker rooms as well. In the Pittsburgh locker room, though, it may again be mixed with talk of postseason hopes. After the week that was, that return to normalcy was just what the Steelers hoped for.
“Football is such a relief for so many people, right?” Roethlisberger said. “It’s a way for people to not worry about their jobs, and not worry about things going on in their lives. For us to come out and play football and give people a release, it’s fun, for us as players, this is what we’ve done since we were little kids, play football. Put the loss behind us, that was as much of a big deal for us as anything last week. For us to come out and just play football again was a lot of fun.”