Bears

Combating divisiveness, Steelers opt to skip national anthem in display of team unity

Combating divisiveness, Steelers opt to skip national anthem in display of team unity

All eyes were on the NFL Sunday afternoon after President Donald Trump told his supporters at a rally on Friday night that team owners should fire any "son of a bitch" who protests or takes a knee during the National Anthem.

The remarks fell on deaf ears as the Pittsburgh Steelers took a stance against President Trump before their 23-17 overtime loss to the Bears at Soldier Field.

In a display of unity, the Steelers were one of three teams on Sunday — along with the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks — who remained in the locker room during the national anthem in an attempt to combat divisiveness.

The Steelers decision was agreed upon during a players' only meeting at the team hotel on Saturday night.

"You know, by no means, no way shape or form, was there any disrespect intended towards our troops and those that serve this country," Steelers quarterback and team captain Ben Roethlisberger said. "We all have the utmost respect for them obviously. They give us the freedom to play this game. Last night, obviously with all the issues going on if you will, we had a players' only meeting after the team meeting last night, we decided we were going to talk about what we were going to do because we know some guys wanted to take a knee, guys wanted to stand.

"We said whatever we do, we need to make sure we are unified as one group because that is what we are about and that is what it should be about. Staying together as one unit, one group, one brotherhood, things like that so rather than having one guy kneel, one guy stand, the conclusion was made by everybody that the best to do was to stay in the locker (or in the tunnel if you will) and show respect that way."

When the Steelers ran out of the tunnel following the anthem, they were met by a chorus of boos from the Soldier Field crowd

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who revealed in a pregame interview on Sunday that the team wouldn't be taking the field during the national anthem, made it clear that the most important aspect of the team's decision was to stay united

"They were not going to be disrespectful during the anthem so they choose not to participate during the anthem, but at the same time many of them were not going to accept the words of the President," Tomlin said. "So, we decided to sit out and not take the field, to remove ourselves from it, so we could focus on playing football. Those were our intentions."

While nearly every member of the Steelers organization stayed in the locker room during the national anthem, one player stood in front of the tunnel.

Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former United States Army Ranger and Captain who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, was seen in the tunnel with his right hand over his heart.

Villanueva wasn't available for comment following Sunday's game, but his teammates made it clear that they had no problem with his decision to distance himself from the rest of the team.

"Al is a hell of a man and I appreciate everything he does," Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said. "This man went over and served our country like no other and we've commended him every single day." 

In addition to the support of their head coach, the Steelers had the backing of team President Art Rooney II for their decision.

While President Trump may not agree with the displays around the league as evidence by him going on another Twitter rant about wanting to see the NFL change its policy regarding the national anthem, commissioner Roger Goodell doesn't plan on fining any players for their Week 3 protests.

If that's the case, would these displays continue throughout the entire season? Possibly.

"It isn't just one day," Heyward said. "We're out in the community. We're trying to make changes, not by just one person but as a team. It doesn't matter what goes on. We're trying to build a better society, a better city and a better America for everyone."

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.