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How the Steelers turned locker-room unrest into 8-2 season

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Steelers' Gilbert suspended 4 games (0:24)

Steelers offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert is suspended for four games for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. (0:24)

PITTSBURGH -- On the surface, the Pittsburgh Steelers appeared ready to follow the blueprint for a destructive season, an avalanche of drama disrupting the locker-room sanctity players so covet.

The botched national anthem display turned the locker room icy. At least two key offensive players became unhappy with their roles, conveyed through the beatdown of a cooler (Antonio Brown) or a verbal beatdown of a teammate on social media (Martavis Bryant). A quarterback unafraid to call out teammates was calling out himself for his own ugly play.

The Steelers emerged through that haze only to make a beeline to the top of the AFC. Talks with several players outline why: A dedication to on-field results not only assuages distractions but allows space for them to develop and eventually fizzle naturally.

Running back Le'Veon Bell, who understands the art of distraction after missing all of training camp over his contract, said each Steelers player follows a simple motto: Depend on teammates as they depend on you.

"We've been looking for the bigger picture, that's get to the playoffs and get to the Super Bowl," Bell said. "That's the only thing that we really worry about. Everything else on the outside, especially things we can't handle, we don't really put too much interest in that."

But they did have to operate with several issues percolating. Here's how they did it.

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A usually cohesive Steelers locker room reached a state of confusion over the now-famous anthem display in Chicago that left Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, standing alone outside the tunnel while the rest of the team stayed inside and four coaches manned the sideline.

Players quickly realized their plans for unity backfired as they landed in Pittsburgh after a 23-17 loss to the Chicago Bears; social media had told them so. Several players recalled feeling misrepresented, unable to properly express themselves, labeled as un-American when that wasn't the intention or the cause.

One player privately described the locker room atmosphere the day after the game as "co-workers, not brothers," position groups forming as cliques. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's statement that Monday that he regretted the Steelers' decision to stay in the tunnel fueled the confusion, since many believed the decision was made collaboratively.

Coach Mike Tomlin told the media that Tuesday that his locker room would stay united. Turns out he didn't have to play much of a role in that process. He let his veterans -- co-captains Roethlisberger and Cam Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey, James Harrison and others -- take the locker room's pulse.

"Coach Tomlin, he don't give a damn," wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. "Even when guys get fined, he fines them and moves on. We're not going to spend time talking about that stuff. At the end of the day, it's a players issue. He has a job to do as a coach. He knows where he needs to be and getting guys ready to go, but when it comes to the anthem, wanting the ball, stuff like that -- hey, ya'll handle that."

Pouncey handled that, speaking authoritatively to the media that week that the Steelers would stand for the anthem in Baltimore. And he was right. Pouncey said he didn't give a directive in a team meeting, but he knew his public words would carry weight.

The issue mostly faded from there. Steelers president Art Rooney and Tomlin had addressed the team that Monday, linebacker Bud Dupree recalled, and although emotions were mixed, several players said they knew winning would overcome the problems bubbling under the surface. That week, the Steelers played statement ball: 42 rushes on the way to a 26-9 win over the Baltimore Ravens.

"From the jump, we wouldn't let anything stop what we were doing," tight end Xavier Grimble said. "That can cause a little tension when people's opinions and beliefs are involved. But we didn't let it cause a rift between us. From the jump, we wouldn't let anything stop what we were doing."

***

Despite the resounding win, pressure mounted between two of the Steelers' biggest figures. Brown flipped the Gatorade cooler after a broken play didn't go his way, and Roethlisberger used his weekly radio show to call out Brown for the antic, stressing it didn't help that team and knocked down Brown's "superhuman" ability a notch.

CBS Sports reported Brown's outburst had roots in the handling of the anthem, in which Roethlisberger, as a team captain, was involved. Several sources acknowledged the tension was palpable between the two over misunderstandings, but that a proactive conversation in the team facility that week cleared the air.

"They squashed it," said a source with knowledge of the conversation.

The Friday before the Week 5 matchup against Jacksonville, Brown was effusive in his praise of Roethlisberger, who threw the ball to Brown 19 times despite his five-interception performance.

The way players see it, Brown is working on a monster career -- a potential fifth straight 100-catch season with Roethlisberger -- because of the quarterback and receiver finding middle ground over the years.

"AB is leading the league in catches and yards. You tell me," said Heyward-Bey of any rifts between the two.

Roethlisberger saying "maybe I don't have it anymore" after the loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars left some in the building wondering whether he was sarcastic, looking for sympathy or wishing he had retired in the offseason. But his 10 touchdowns to three interceptions over the next five games erased any questions.

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When Bryant addressed a sea of media by his locker Oct. 16, a day after his trade demands became public, teammates playfully howled at Bryant and joked that he would be traded to the Golden State Warriors. Bryant, his lanky frame a neck above the horde, flashed a smile.

The laughs weren't rehearsed, but they were intentional.

"You can turn a joke into anything [around here]," linebacker Anthony Chickillo said. "Even when stuff is going on, everyone knew our goal. It's always about winning. That's it."

Instead of getting frazzled, Bryant appreciated the sentiment. It made him feel normal at a chaotic time. Even though he wanted the ball more, possibly somewhere else, he didn't want a public drag-out.

"I didn't really want everything to go down the way it did, especially drawing all this attention to the team," Bryant said. "It is the way it is, we handled it in an appropriate way."

Although Bryant stood by his words on Instagram that JuJu Smith-Schuster was "nowhere near" better than him -- comments that resulted in a one-game suspension -- Bryant has maintained he's a good teammate, which several players have attested to.

This is where the Steelers' locker room game plan comes into focus, separating player-specific issues with team-oriented goals. As Heyward-Bey pointed out, "everything going on was personal," but once each practice starts, the chatter stops.

As a team captain, Heyward acknowledges this year has presented unique distractions, which amplifies the need for winning attitudes.

"We've got one goal in mind, and to do that we have to be focused," Hayward said. "We understand there might be things to deter our focus. We stay together and stay focused as one and lead by example and show younger guys how it should be."