PITTSBURGH — The Steelers have no plans on moving on from All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell.
Team president Art Rooney II is optimistic the team can sign Bell to a long-term extension going into the 2018 season, but didn’t rule out using the franchise tag for a second straight year as a precaution if the two sides can’t come to an agreement before free agency begins next month.
While allowing that contract negotiations can be hard to predict, Rooney stressed Wednesday that “the good news is both sides want to get something done and hopefully that will lead us to getting it done.”
Bell played under the franchise tag this season after rejecting a new contract last summer. He responded by leading the NFL in touches (406) while finishing with 1,946 total yards and 11 touchdowns to earn his second All-Pro spot in four years as the Steelers finished 13-3 and won their second straight AFC North title before being upset in the divisional round by Jacksonville.
Bell told ESPN in the run-up to the playoff loss he would consider sitting out 2018 or retiring if Pittsburgh used the franchise tag again, but softened his stance prior to the Pro Bowl, saying he believes he’s close to signing a new deal, one that would likely make him the highest-paid back in the league.
While Bell figures to be back next fall, defensive backs coach Carnell Lake will not. Lake stepped down on Wednesday after seven seasons, citing a desire to return to California to watch his youngest son finish up his high school football career.
Pittsburgh’s secondary underwent a massive overhaul during Lake’s tenure, as Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark gave way to Mike Mitchell, Artie Burns and Sean Davis.
Rooney praised Lake’s contributions while adding that overall he believes the team still has work to do despite finishing with a franchise-record and NFL-high 56 sacks.
“I think at times we weren’t as solid against the run as we’d like to be and as we’ve been historically as a Steeler defense,” Rooney said.
“We’ve typically been able to stop the run, so we’ve had occasions where maybe we weren’t as consistent in that area as I think we’d like to be.”
Namely against the Jaguars. The Steelers allowed 231 yards rushing in a regular-season loss to Jacksonville and 164 more in a 45-42 playoff stunner.
Rooney, however, downplayed the idea the Steelers were looking ahead to a rematch with New England and defended coach Mike Tomlin’s approach.
“Anybody that wants to look at Mike’s track record since he’s been our coach, I think the record speaks for itself,” Rooney said.
Rooney praised the leadership among the coaching staff and in the locker room in general following a bumpy autumn sprinkled with off-the-field issues from a “botched” attempt to sidestep the debate around the national anthem in Chicago to linebacker Ryan Shazier’s life-altering spinal injury to the decision to cut longtime linebacker James Harrison, who promptly signed with New England and reached the Super Bowl.
Rooney said there was blame to go around on both sides for the way Harrison’s tenure with Pittsburgh ended, adding he would have preferred Harrison’s year end with getting five sacks in a Super Bowl with the Steelers.
Shazier will have a role with Pittsburgh next season whether his playing career continues or not. The 25-year-old spent nearly two months in the hospital after injuring his spine against Cincinnati in December and is undergoing outpatient rehabilitation.
Shazier posted a picture of himself standing with a little help shortly before his discharge and he made several appearances at practices and games after getting hurt.
“I expect Ryan is going to be here one way or the other and have a role with the team one way or the other in 2018 for sure,” Rooney said.