A franchise with one ownership family since 1933, three coaches since 1969 and a tradition, at least of late, of winning games via blunt-force defense seemingly always in a snowstorm by the score of like, 13-9, is now a traveling (and winning) circus of comical controversies, internal soap operas, social-media antics, touchdown celebrations and youthful joy that doesn’t always make sense … except when it does.
The Steelers are 6-2, so who the hell cares.
“It’s energizing,” Ben Roethlisberger said. “It’s fun.”
Or consider that the big play in Sunday’s 20-15 victory over Detroit came when Roethlisberger, who earlier this year wondered if “maybe I don’t have it anymore,” tossed a 97-yard touchdown pass to a rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who figured he was going to get caught from behind because “my ‘Madden’ speed is like 82, 83” and he thought he recalled that the Lions chasing him were rated faster. Turns out what was in the game was not in the game.
“After today hopefully I get a boost up,” Smith-Schuster said of his “Madden” video game number.
Smith-Schuster was coming off a rather solid stretch of modern Steelerism, the kind of bizarre drama typically found in pro basketball. Just last week he had his bike stolen, which he announced on social media by filming himself walking to practice and wondering “why people got to be like that??”
The people of Pittsburgh were outraged and responded to the #TeamFindJuJusBike. Soon enough, someone who says he bought it off the street turned the bike in to authorities and all was right with JuJu’s transportation. Smith-Schuster is bike reliant because the 20-year-old from Los Angeles doesn’t have a driver’s license. He commemorated the triumphant return of his ride first with some bicycle-themed cleats and then a touchdown celebration that included wrapping a chain around a stationary bike the Steelers put on their sideline.
“Got my bike back and I’m locking it up now,” he said, explaining that he got the chain Sunday at a Home Depot near the team hotel in Detroit.
“JuJu, that’s a great celebration,” linebacker Vince Williams shouted in the Steelers’ locker room as he watched the replay on his phone.
“That’s an elite celebration,” linebacker Arthur Moats chimed in.
Everyone laughed. There was more, though, since these aren’t your older brother’s Steelers.
When Smith-Schuster got to the sideline, he was congratulated by Martavis Bryant. This was no small event since Bryant recently returned from a one-year suspension for marijuana to find his role diminished by Smith-Schuster. Bryant wasn’t pleased. Arguing with a random fan on Instagram, Bryant declared “JuJu is nowhere near better than me fool.” Bryant then reportedly demanded a trade.
Coach Mike Tomlin responded by refusing to discuss Bryant and then demoting him to the scout team.
All’s well that ends well, or all’s well when it sounds like a plot line from “Ballers.” Or something. Whatever it was, Bryant and JuJu seemed like good friends again here Sunday. Bryant and Tomlin still have some work to do.
Whatever. It’s just another week for the Steelers. And just another game. When else does a defense give up 411 passing yards, but no touchdowns, including delivering consecutive fourth-quarter, goal-line stands to get the win?
“I heard we gave up 400 yards passing, that’s not anything we want to do,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “But you have to win games this way sometimes.”
No one is even sure if Pittsburgh is any good. The Steelers are having a good time. Everything seems to work itself out.
Take earlier this year when Antonio Brown was angry that Roethlisberger didn’t see him open during a victory over Baltimore and threw a pass elsewhere. Brown decided to take it out on a Gatorade cooler, chucking it to the ground on the sideline. Big Ben went on the radio and declared it a “temper tantrum” and noted, “It’s not like I intentionally didn’t throw it.”
Rather than ramping up the feud, Brown agreed with the QB and apologized.
Then there was the time the Steelers completely screwed up their anthem protest after President Donald Trump’s comments. First, Tomlin went on CBS and said the team would stay in the locker room, apparently because no one could agree on anything and they didn’t want to “make a statement.” Of course, not coming out was a statement.
To make matters more confusing, offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva did leave the locker room and stood in the tunnel. A picture of him with his hand over his heart went viral and his jersey briefly shot to the top of the sales charts.
Villanueva, though, said he didn’t realize what was going on and felt bad for “throwing [my teammates] under the bus” by making himself look like the only patriotic Steeler.
“Obviously, we butchered it,” Villanueva said.
Yet everyone moved on. That tends to happen when you keep finding oddball ways to win. The Steelers can’t claim to be the best team in the NFL, not with cross-state rival Philadelphia sitting at 7-1. The delicious possibilities of a Keystone State Super Bowl, though, remain.
First, there is more entertainment. Sure, Roethlisberger questioned himself after throwing five picks against Jacksonville, but he was still slinging 317 yards here in Detroit. And while some would say JuJu bringing a Home Depot chain to the game for a preplanned touchdown celebration might reek of being a diva, he’s actually a team player in the world of end-zone celebrations.
When Le’Veon Bell scored earlier, the scripted routine was for Bell to pretend he was doing bench presses. JuJu volunteered to play the humble role of “the bench,” getting on all fours as Bell laid on his back and mimicked the exercise.
“I’ll be anything,” JuJu said. “I’ll be a prop.”
Apparently, he and Bell have a list, stored on JuJu’s iPhone, 20-deep of touchdown celebrations for nearly everyone on the team. He may dream up some more during the bye week, he said. First, he’s getting his bike secured back in Pittsburgh and then heading out to USC for homecoming weekend, flying high like the suddenly free-spirited Steelers.
“I told [JuJu], I didn’t know you had that much speed,” Roethlisberger said. “He said he didn’t know either.”
Who did? It wasn’t in “Madden,” after all.
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