Steelers President Art Rooney II spent time on Thursday afternoon answering questions from Steelers Nation Unite members, and there was no shortage of inquisitive questions from them.
It didn't take long for them to get right into the meat of what some of the hot topics have been this offseason, including the 17-game schedule, which is something that will be discussed during the virtual NFL Owners Meeting next week.
"The 17-game schedule I think will work out well," said Rooney. "Obviously, this year will be the first year for it, so we'll get a chance to see how it goes. I think we will reduce the preseason by one game. It will be a similar kind of schedule in terms of the calendar, but we will just turn one of the preseason games into a regular season a game, which I think all of us would appreciate. I feel good about it, I hope it works, and I look forward to seeing how it does in 2021."
When those games are played, one question every Steelers fan has on their mind is will they be able to be back at Heinz Field watching the team in person. In 2020, the number of fans permitted at Heinz Field was greatly limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Rooney is optimistic that will change in 2021.
"I think we will. I am kind of optimistic about it," said Rooney of having fans return. "It's still early, it's only March, so we'll see how things go. I am optimistic we will have fans. Frankly I am optimistic we will have a full stadium by this fall. Hopefully everybody is out there getting the vaccine and is going to be able to get in crowds and things like that again. Hopefully we are going to be back to pretty close to normal by the fall. Let's all say our prayers and keep our fingers crossed. But I am optimistic about it at this point."
Rooney admitted one of the toughest things to deal with during the pandemic was not having fans at games, something he truly missed.
"Having the games without fans was the toughest," said Rooney. "Just being in the stadium without fans was strange, really weird. I think it did affect the players. I just hope we don't have to go through that again, that is for sure."
The Steelers are also making plans to return to a sense of normalcy for training camp, with the initial plan according to Rooney to go back to Saint Vincent College after holding training camp at Heinz Field in 2020.
"That is the plan," said Rooney. "We are hoping things get back to normal this fall. Obviously training camp happens a little earlier than that. It's something we are planning for now, but we will see how things go. We need this virus to turn the corner. We still want to make sure that fans are safe when they come to Saint Vincent. We may have to look at if we have to limit the number of fans. We'll be looking at all of those issues. Right now our goal and our plan is to have training camp at Saint Vincent this summer."
The fans also had plenty of questions about individual players, including why it was important to keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"We wanted Ben back," said Rooney. "The key to it was to be able to restructure his contract in a way that allowed us to keep Ben and be able to sign some other players. Ben cooperated with that, was willing to make some changes in his contract, and that allowed us to keep him on the team this year which was always our goal.
"I thought Ben had a very good year last year for somebody that was coming off of arm surgery. Hopefully he will have an even better year this year with another year under his belt in terms of recovering from that arm surgery. It was a very serious surgery, and we were uncertain how well he would be able to recover from it. He did a great job rehabbing and we are excited to have him back for this season."
Rooney also addressed re-signing receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was a free agent.
"JuJu was an important part of our offense last year and has been for the last few years," said Rooney. "We were certainly hopeful that we would be able to sign JuJu back. The one thing about JuJu is he really wanted to come back and that certainly helped a lot. I'm glad we got him back. I look forward to him having another good year for us in 2021."
And while he still has one more year left on his contract, keeping linebacker T.J. Watt was definitely on the mind of the fans and Rooney agreed that it's something the team wants to do.
"We're certainly going to try," said Rooney. "T.J. has another year on his contract. We certainly look at T.J. as a key player in the future. I can assure you we'll do everything we can to keep T.J. on the roster beyond this year. That is the goal."
Other topics that were addressed included the upcoming NFL Draft and what areas Rooney would like to see addressed. Among the positions he mentioned were running back and offensive line, both things that would help after the team finished last in the NFL in rushing in 2020, something that Rooney knows has to improve.
"We've got to be a lot better in running," said Rooney. "Certainly we don't want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it's something our coaches are focused on and we'll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It's something we've got to fix, and we are working on it."
You can listen to the full call below.