"Obviously, we didn't achieve our ultimate goal," said Steelers President Art Rooney II, "but there were a lot of positives to take from this season, I think."
And with that, it can be said that the page has been turned for the Pittsburgh Steelers, from the events/realities of 2014 toward the prospects/expectations for 2015.
This morning at the team's practice facility, Rooney listed the team's AFC North Division championship – and the four-game winning streak to close the regular season that made it possible – as worthwhile accomplishments, but he also used the session as an opportunity to address the areas be believes need improvement during the soon-to-begin offseason.
Contract negotiations, salary cap compliance, the team's interest in the return of four veteran players on defense, that unit's direction in the wake of the change in defensive coordinators, and even league issues such as instant replay and Deflategate were brought up. Rooney addressed each of those, even if the calendar prevented him from making a lot of definitive statements.
Staying with the assessment of 2014, Rooney acknowledged the Steelers were an offense-heavy outfit last season and that current rules have allowed more NFL teams to become offensively dominant, but "we still will strive to be a team with a strong defense."
IMPROVING THE DEFENSE
Starting in 2012, the Steelers have re-made large portions of their roster on defense, with experience being replaced by youth, and Rooney said he saw some positive signs as the season progressed.
"I thought the defense – all things considered in terms of some of the personnel changes we went through – over the course of the season they got better, which is what you strive to do," said Rooney. "We have some good, young players I think we can build around. That's going to be the key. There's no question we need to get better. That's something we need to be focused on in the offseason, how to get better on defense."
Part of the improvement can come from the further development of young players, and Rooney pointed to Cam Heyward and Lawrence Timmons as examples, but he also said the Steelers will be looking to add to the talent already assembled. The avenues for that are free agency and the draft, which moved the focus from 2014 to 2015.
SALARY CAP COMPLIANCE
All NFL teams will have to be in compliance with the salary cap by March 10, which also is the start of the new league year and the first day of free agency. But the league won't know what the actual cap number is to be until a few days before that. One calendar year ago, with teams expecting a flat cap or maybe a slight increase, the final number came in at over $10 million per team above that.
"It is expected to be a modest increase at this point," said Rooney in terms of the 2015 number. "That's what the prediction is. That's kind of what it was expected last year, and it went up a little higher than what we expected. So you never know."
In some offseasons, the Steelers have had to make significant cuts to get themselves in compliance with the salary cap, but that's not expected to be necessary this time around.
"We will have to manage the cap like we always do," said Rooney. "There are always some challenges to it. We don't actually know the number yet, and that will be an important piece of information to plan around. It's something that's always a challenge. Again, we will have to do a good job of managing it to make sure we get done what we need to get done."
But it's also not feasible for the Steelers to wait until the NFL releases the 2015 salary cap number, because the period to use the transition or franchise player designation on impending free agents runs from Feb. 16 to March 2. Last year, the Steelers used the transition designation on Jason Worilds, who accepted the one-year contract and played for $9.754 million in 2014.
Worilds can become an unrestricted free agent on March 10 if not tagged, or if a long-term agreement is not in place by then, and Rooney wouldn't rule anything out.
"I can say I would like to have Jason back," said Rooney. "Like anything else we'll have to come to a contract agreement with him that both sides can live with, and we'll see where that goes."
Worilds started all 16 games at right outside linebacker in 2014, and he tied with Heyward for the team lead in sacks with 7.5. This was the first season in which Worilds was a full-time starter at one position, and he now has 25.5 sacks in 73 career games (37 starts) during his five seasons in Pittsburgh.
"I would just say that Jason had a good year," said Rooney. "I think that as a defense we've got to get more sacks and put more pressure on the quarterback. In the games we were successful we were able to do that. That's a key piece of the puzzle we have to look at as we build this defense going into next year. Jason is certainly a capable pass rusher, so that's one of the reasons why I'd say we'd like to have him back if we can work something out."
In terms of signing current players, though, most of the offseason attention will be directed toward Ben Roethlisberger, who could enter the final year of his existing contract. On the eve of the 2014 regular season opener, Rooney said signing Roethlisberger to an extension would be a project for this offseason, and both sides said publicly they expect the quarterback to finish his career with the Steelers.
"Obviously we would like to get it done this offseason, and I think it's fair to say the sooner the better," said Rooney, "but I'm not going to put any particular time frame on these things. It's kind of hard to predict how long it takes to get something done, but we certainly want to get something done this offseason. That's for sure. It takes two to tango when it comes to contract negotiations. I'm not expecting a problem, but again, I hate to put predictions on those kinds of things."
In the past, the Steelers have extended quarterback contracts with two years remaining, but last season the decision was made to spend money to shore up other areas of the team. In the meantime, Roethlisberger had his best professional season, and the likely result of that is his price has gone up.
"I will take that problem," said Rooney. "I'm happy to have a player who had a great year. I would rather have that situation than the reverse. I'm not complaining about it. It is what it is. We will just have to deal with the circumstances as they present themselves in this offseason."
DIPPING INTO FREE AGENCY AGAIN
The Steelers traditionally have been resistant to a lot of activity in the free agent market, but last offseason was somewhat different. Signed were wide receivers Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, free safety Mike Mitchell, defensive end Cam Thomas, and cornerback Brice McCain.
"I think it turned pretty well," said Rooney in assessing those signings. "We had a couple of free agents come in and play a lot. Hopefully, after a year in the system here, they will be even more improved. I was satisfied with the way things turned out. We will take the same approach (this offseason). If there is an opportunity to sign somebody like that, we will certainly look at it. I wouldn't rule that out at this point. but it depends on who is available to us and what we are able to do at that point in time."
NEW COORDINATOR, SAME SCHEME
The biggest news to this point in 2015 was the resignation of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, and the subsequent elevation of linebackers coach Keith Butler to that post. There has been a change there, but Rooney said he expects the defense to remain the same fundamentally in 2015.
"I don't necessarily see dramatic changes in the basic design of the defense," said Rooney. "I'm sure there will be some (changes), but I don't foresee us making dramatic changes. I am sure Coach Butler will have his way of doing things, and that it will be somewhat different than Coach LeBeau. But in terms of the basics of the defense, I would say we would have the same foundation that we've had in recent years, so yes, I think it would be a 3-4. Things have changed over the last few years to the point where we aren't in the base defense that much anymore. There are a lot of different packages."
As for LeBeau's decision, Rooney said he respected it, and also everything he contributed to the franchise during his time here.
"Personally, I would have loved to have seen Dick stay," said Rooney. "He's had a great career and made an awful lot of great contributions to our success in recent years. Dick made a decision. The words he used to describe what he wanted to do were his words. I'm not going to dispute that. I respect the decision he made and understand what he wants to do going forward. Certainly can't ask any more of him. He's been a great, great coach for us and really on a personal level a great friend. So on that basis I was sorry to see him go. But as we all know, these things happen in this business."
TOMORROW: Rooney on Deflategate, LeGarrette Blount, Heinz Field expansion, thirtysomethings on defense, and more