Plagued by multiple distractions, Pittsburgh Steelers have evolved into NFL's drama kings
PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree just smiled earlier this month when asked what would happen if the "Hard Knocks" cameras decided to spend a month embedded with the team during training camp.
"We're too real for TV," Dupree said with a grin.
Dupree meant it as a joke. Two weeks later, nobody is laughing.
The Steelers (0-1-1) are winless heading into next Monday's visit to Tampa Bay and the distractions they stressed the importance of avoiding in 2018 only seem to be multiplying.
The latest arrived in the aftermath of a loss to Kansas City when All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown opted to skip work on Monday, though he did find the time to hop on Twitter and respond to criticism by a former team employee who believes Brown should be thankful that he plays alongside quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
No one took Brown's suggestion of "trade me let's find out" seriously. Coach Mike Tomlin's bigger concern was Brown's absence from a mandatory day of meetings, a misstep that led to an extended sit-down between the two on Tuesday.
"I'll leave the nature of that conversation between us," Tomlin said Wednesday. "There was discipline involved for his missed meeting for Monday. Some of the other things we talked about extensively, he'll speak for himself in some of those things. Really our focus is preparing to win this game on Monday night."
Tomlin did not outline Brown's punishment. The only player in NFL history with five consecutive seasons of at least 100 receptions practiced alongside his teammates on Wednesday and there appears to be no plans to have him sit when the Steelers play the Buccaneers (2-0).
Asked if he expects Brown to face Tampa Bay, center Maurkice Pouncey responded "100 percent" and insisted there would be no blowback against Brown in the locker room for another in an increasing line of highly visible missteps.
"People don't know the things he has going on in his life, he's totally fine," Pouncey said. "He talked to the people he needed to talk to and confirmed why he wasn't here and we move on as a team and that's totally fine."
Offensive line vented: Pouncey's remarks came two weeks after he and the rest of the offensive line vented about running back Le'Veon Bell's decision to stay away from the team rather than sign his one-year franchise tender and two months after Pouncey opened training camp by saying "I know it's all fun and games for everybody at the beginning but man it's time to win."
And yet here the Steelers are, tied with Cleveland for last place in the AFC North while Bell jet skis in Florida and Brown flouts team rules . Roethlisberger did his best to downplay any sense of the off-the-field issues swallowing the team whole.
"I mean any team, any sport is going to have some kind of distractions throughout the year," Roethlisberger said. "I think that's what makes you professional. How can you respond and recover from it."
The best chance Pittsburgh has at crawling out of its self-created funk must come with Brown in the fold. Cameras caught him shouting at offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner in the second half, hardly the first time Brown has let his anger bubble to the surface when things aren't going well.
"I think that he's the best in the world and when you're the best in the world you want to participate, you want to win football games," Roethlisberger said. "We're all a little frustrated because we're not winning right now."
It's not as if Brown has been frozen out of the offense. He's been targeted a league-high 33 times and his 18 receptions are tied for the team lead with JuJu Smith-Schuster. Brown, however, is averaging just 8.9 yards per catch, a byproduct of defenses determined to take away his breakaway ability.
"AB is a very passionate football player," Roethlisberger said. "We know that. The fans know that. That's what makes him special is his passion for this game and the passion to be great. We're not going to want to take that away from him."
Team used to controversy: If anything, at least Roethlisberger and company have become accustomed to talking about the latest off-the-field dustup. They won 13 games in a 2017 that often felt chaotic and why they shrugged when asked if there's a cumulative toll of spending so much time answering questions that have little to do with their play.
"It can if you let it control you," cornerback Artie Burns said. "I think we do a good job of trying to keep the camaraderie together as a team and just focus on week to week. You never know what may come up on the headlines or whatever, so you've got to prepare for it."
The Steelers are certainly getting plenty of practice.