Rooney: 'Pass defense must be better'

If you pay attention and listen carefully, there are things to be learned. Steelers President Art Rooney II today did his usual end-of-season interviews with a variety of media outlets, and in past sessions of these sit-downs he has provided clues to the immediate direction the team would take as it entered the offseason.

Once, Rooney suggested the Steelers needed to run the football more efficiently. Another time it was a warning that Ben Roethlisberger was being subjected to too much physical punishment. Last year, he said he wanted to see the defense get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Because all of those things happened, it has become a matter of some importance to hear what Rooney has at the top of the team's to-do list at the start of each offseason.

"We got into the playoffs, and it's always nice to have that opportunity," said Rooney. "I was proud of the way the guys fought through a lot of adversity over the course of this season. I'm not sure I've ever really seen a season quite like it in terms of injuries, but our guys never let that be an excuse and kept fighting to the last minute. And so I'm proud of them.

"I don't like to make predictions, but I do think the direction of the team is a positive one. Having said that, we know we have work to do. During this offseason we need to figure out where we need to get better, and then we need to address that."

And shortly after making that assessment, Rooney got a bit more specific.

"If you look at us statistically, we weren't where we'd like to be in terms of pass defense, and so that's an area we know we want to improve upon," said Rooney. "We certainly made progress on defense. We got better as the year went on, but we all agree we need to be better in general as a pass defense.

"I'm not going to suggest we need to do something dramatically different. We invested some draft picks in some players last year we certainly hope are going to take a step forward this coming season and be contributors. Obviously we have some opportunities this offseason in terms of free agency and the draft. It's something we have to keep working on."

Steelers fans have been clamoring for the team to spend its first-round pick on a cornerback for several years now, and the last time the team did that was in 1997 when it selected Maryland's Chad Scott with the 24th overall pick. Even though the Steelers have gone 17 years without using their first-round pick on a cornerback, they did trade up in the first round in 2003 to add Troy Polamalu to the roster, and from 1998-2014 they did draft 24 defensive backs.

It's just that too many of the recent ones haven't turned into the kinds of players the Steelers hoped/needed them to become. Yes, there were the successes, such as Polamalu and Ike Taylor and Will Gay, but too often of late the defensive backs the Steelers have drafted haven't been able to make it out of their rookie training camps.

Guys such as Terence Frederick and Shaquille Richardson and Terry Hawthorne and Gerod Holliman were cut as rookies, while others such as Crezdon Butler and Curtis Brown hung around the bottom rungs of the depth chart for a few years before being cut as well.

"We've made some mistakes, there's no denying that, in terms of some of the evaluations," said Rooney. "But in saying that, we still have players in that group who we think can improve, and that's what we're looking for is having that group get better as the years go on. That's what we're looking for in this coming offseason."

The Steelers never have been big players in free agency, but there have been occasions when they have utilized that avenue to add defensive backs they judged to be up-and-coming players to strengthen their secondary, with Ryan Clark and Mike Mitchell being the two most recent examples. Rooney was asked to assess the Steelers' salary cap situation this offseason, which goes hand-in-hand with whether the team could pursue defensive back help in free agency.

"We will have work to do, as always. I think it's a manageable situation, but we have a number of players we need to sign, and those are decisions we'll have to make," said Rooney about the Steelers' salary cap issues this offseason. "We'll probably have some players who would like to extend their contracts, and so I'm sure it'll be like most years. We'll have to manage the cap and make some decisions."

The Steelers have 20 potential unrestricted free agents of their own to consider, and there also are guys such as Le'Veon Bell and David DeCastro who are entering the final seasons of their rookie contracts and thus could be in line for extensions. Complicating those two situations to some degree are that DeCastro will be able to make a big buck as a result of the Steelers exercising the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, while Bell has ended each of the last two seasons on injured reserve with knee injuries.

"We still feel like (Bell) is going to be a great player and hopefully the injury will be something he recovers from completely," said Rooney. "And in terms of his future, we hope his future is here. Whether we address the contract situation now or later, it's still something we have to evaluate. But irrespective of that, I think he's somebody we would like to continue to have on the team for the long run.

"I don't think we're sitting here waiting to see something from Le'Veon. I think we've seen enough," added Rooney. "So, it really is going to come down to kind of how his contract situation fits in with all the others. I always say it's kind of a jigsaw puzzle you have to put together every year. And so how will these pieces fit together this year vs. next. Unfortunately, you have to make choices. You can't always get everybody done at once, and so that's the process we'll go through over the next couple months."

Rooney also addressed a number of other issues:

On Antonio Brown's contract situation, with two years remaining on the extension he signed in 2012:
"I don't like to speculate about what we're going to do about a player's contract. We've had a number of players over the years we've had to make contract adjustments with, and we obviously try to be cautious about how we do that. We'll just have to address that as the offseason goes on. AB is a great football player and somebody that irrespective of when we address the situation we hope he's going to be here for the long term."

On whether he believes the on-field officials should be more proactive in ejecting players who cross the line with personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct:
"I'd be reluctant to say that we should have officials suspending players in the middle of games or ejecting players. I'm not looking for us to change that aspect of it. I think the situation we're in, the Commissioner, his decisions are being scrutinized more than ever. So, you could say he should be more aggressive all you want, but whether he can actually get some of that done is another question. I think we're probably in a situation where suspensions like that are probably going to come up more often in situations where it's a repeat offender."

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