CHICAGO — When the national anthem started at Soldier Field, the visiting sideline was mostly empty. The most prominent evidence of the Pittsburgh Steelers was offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva standing by himself near the tunnel, holding his right hand over his heart.
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It was one strange day for one of the NFL’s most revered franchises.
The Steelers stayed off the sideline during the anthem in protest of President Donald Trump’s recent criticism of NFL players, and then made a couple of big mistakes in a surprising 23-17 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday. A muffed punt and blocked field goal set up 10 points for Chicago, and Pittsburgh allowed a whopping 220 yards rushing.
“We faced a lot of adversity today and most of it was created by us,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Steelers held a players-only meeting Saturday night to discuss their options in the wake of Trump’s suggestion that NFL owners fire players who kneel for the national anthem. A handful of NFL players have refused to stand during the “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest several issues, including police brutality.
“Some guys wanted to take a knee, guys wanted to stand,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “We said whatever we do we need to make sure we’re unified as one group because that’s what we’re about and that’s what this should be about is staying together as one unit and one group and one brotherhood, things like that.
“So rather than have some guys kneel and some guys stand, the conclusion was made kind of by everybody that the best thing to do was just to stay in the locker room or in the tunnel if you will.”
But Villanueva, an Army veteran, stood outside for the anthem, holding his helmet by his side. Roethlisberger and several other players said they had no issue with Villanueva — “As a team we’re behind him 100 per cent,” cornerback Joe Haden said — but Tomlin said he was hoping for 100 per cent participation, while acknowledging the protest was not his decision.
“Man, these are divisive times in the United States,” said Tomlin, one of seven black head coaches in the NFL. “It’s a shame, but it is, but we are not politicians, we’re coaches and professional athletes. If those of us or individuals choose to participate in politics in some way I’m going to be supportive of that, but when we come out of locker rooms we come out to play football games. To be quite honest with you, I didn’t appreciate our football team being dragged into politics this weekend.”
Tomlin called Commissioner Roger Goodell on Sunday morning and told him of the team’s decision.
Roethlisberger said no disrespect was intended for the troops and other people who serve the country, and Steelers President Art Rooney II praised his players for staying unified.
“I hope that eventually we will come together as a nation to respect the diverse opinions that exist and work together to make our communities better for all our citizens,” Rooney said in a statement.
Tomlin said he didn’t think the anthem protest impacted how Pittsburgh played, but Roethlisberger said he felt like the situation might have affected the team “a little bit.” Whatever the reason, the Steelers (2-1) did not look like the same team that rolled to a 26-9 victory over Minnesota last weekend.
Eli Rogers’ flubbed punt return turned into Jordan Howard’s 3-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, giving the Bears a 7-0 lead. Chris Boswell had a field goal blocked late in the first half, which eventually resulted in a short Bears field goal on an untimed down after Vance McDonald hustled down to the goal line at the other end after Marcus Cooper Sr. inexplicably slowed down on his way to a sure touchdown.
Roethlisberger also lost a fumble on a sack and the Bears (1-2) ripped through the Steelers’ defence for a big day on the ground, including Howard’s winning 19-yard touchdown run in overtime.
“We can’t make excuses,” said Roethlisberger, who was 22 of 39 for 235 yards. “I need to play better football. I’ll take this game on me. I didn’t play well enough. I missed too many throws. Didn’t make good reads.”
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