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Rooney: Kicking, turnover ratio the big problems

Often times, the case can be made that winning in the National Football League is about more than simple statistics. But when Steelers President Art Rooney II looks back on a 2018 season in which his team failed to make the playoffs after finishing one-half game behind the division-winning Baltimore Ravens, two statistics in particular stick out like a sore thumb.

“If I had to point to a couple of things that I think were problems that may have cost us that opportunity (to be in the playoffs),” said Rooney, “No. 1 was a lack of even an average kicking game. For somewhat inexplicable reasons our kicker went from one of the best in the league to one of the worse in the league, and so games that we won close last year, we didn’t win close this year. Secondly, our minus turnover ratio. That’s always something that is hard to overcome, and obviously something we need to address going forward.”

By the time the 2018 season ended, the Steelers defense was ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in eight different categories, but where the unit turned out to be woefully inadequate was in the area of creating takeaways. Only four teams – Green Bay, Detroit, Arizona, and San Francisco – finished with fewer interceptions than the Steelers’ eight, and the only teams with fewer than their 15 total takeaways were Detroit (14) and San Francisco (seven).

“Well, I think statistically we did (improve on defense),” said Rooney. “I mean, look, the defense at times I thought played strong. I thought the front seven, in particular, had a pretty good year. We got pressure on the quarterback for most of the season, and so I like the direction there. The defensive backs, that scenario I think we need to improve on, and obviously not being able to hold onto leads at the end of some of the games – that was another cause for concern. So, there’s certainly room for improvement, but yes, I would say I think we took some steps in the right direction.”

Joe Haden was the only player to record more than one interception, and he ended up leading the team with two. T.J. Watt was the only Steelers player to finish with more than one forced fumble, and while he had six of those he didn’t manage to recover any of them. Mike Hilton, with two, was the only player to finish with more than one fumble recovery.

On the flip side, Ben Roethlisberger’s 16 interceptions were the most of any of the league’s quarterbacks, and six of those 16 came on third-down plays. Roethlisberger also lost two fumbles to account for 18 of the team’s 26 turnovers. Combining the 26 turnovers with their 15 takeaways left the Steelers with a minus-11 turnover ratio on the season, and only Jacksonville and Arizona (both minus-12), Tampa Bay (minus-18), and San Francisco (minus-25) were worse.

One season after Chris Boswell was voted to the Pro Bowl after converting 92.1 percent of his field goals and missing only two of 39 extra point attempts, his performance cratered to the tune of five missed extra points (43-of-48) and seven missed field goals (13-of-20, which works out to a 65 percent accuracy rate). Boswell missed as many extra points as any other kicker in the NFL, and his field goal percentage was next-to-last in the league.

“I think (turnovers) can be addressed,” said Rooney. “No. 1, on defense we just have to be aggressive in taking the ball away and finding players who can do that. So, I think that’s something you can improve, and we need to do that. On the offensive side, ball security is something that we talk about a lot. We had some key fumbles and key interceptions at bad times, and those things lead to losing games, so those are areas where we can improve, among others.”

Rooney also addressed the following issues:

• A contract extension for Roethlisberger, who will turn 37 in March:
“Well, we’d like to extend Ben’s contract. I always hate to predict the timing of those things, but that’s certainly something that is on the agenda for this offseason. Yes, the good news is that you certainly look around the league now and quarterbacks are playing at a high level into their 40s. I wouldn’t have expected that years ago, so I feel good about where Ben is physically, mentally, his ability to be a productive player for multiple years. So, I think we feel good about trying to extend his contract.”

• Whether he wished the Le’Veon Bell situation would have been handled differently knowing what he knows now:
“No, it’s hard to say ‘knowing what you know now.’ If you know a guy is going to hold out an entire season, how do you know that? How often does that happen in the history of the National Football League? So, to sit there and say you should’ve known, I don’t know. I didn’t expect it, so I’m guilty of not expecting that to happen, what can I say.”

• On the immediate future of Ryan Shazier, whose contract is set to expire on March 13:
“Ryan, I believe, still intends to continue to rehab with the intention of trying to come back and play, and so to the extent that he wants to do that, we’re open to working that out. There are some technicalities about somebody going from staff to player. So, at this point as I said, I think his goal is to continue to be a player, and so we’ll have to address it as time goes on and figure out how that works. He would have to have a contract.”

• On the status of Bud Dupree, who is due to make $9.232 million in 2019 after the Steelers exercised the fifth-year option on the contract he signed as a rookie. The options are to pay Dupree that salary, or try to work out a longer term deal at a lower salary, or release him:
“I’m not going to try to predict anything as far as his contract. I thought Bud had some good games and some other games that were probably not what you would want, but I think there was some progress there this year. We’re looking for progress from him again next year.”

• On the Steelers potentially playing a 2019 regular season game in Mexico:
“All I can tell you is we keep volunteering to make the trip, and we’d love to go down there sometime. We have a great fan following in Mexico, and so we’re anxious to get down there some time, but I haven’t heard anything about us playing a game down there in 2019. Normally, the International Games are announced around the time of the Super Bowl (which will be on Feb. 3 in Atlanta).”

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