Back in contention, Steelers turn eyes to re-signing Roethlisberger, revamping defense

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers took a calculated risk last spring when they opted not to re-sign quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with two years remaining on his current deal, opting instead to focus on bolstering the roster elsewhere.

It's going to cost them, and president Art Rooney II knows it. Then again, there are worse positions than negotiating with a player coming off the best statistical season of an already remarkable career.

"I'll take that problem," Rooney said with a laugh Wednesday.

It may be one of the easiest ones to solve over the next few months for the AFC North champions. Pittsburgh returned to the playoffs in 2014 after a two-year absence, going 11-5 and riding a dynamic offense and a perfect December to its first division title since 2010. While Rooney called it a "good" season with "a lot of positives" the Steelers' last Super Bowl appearance is becoming an ever smaller speck in the rearview mirror.

"Obviously we didn't achieve our ultimate goal," Rooney said.

Maybe, but Pittsburgh looked closer than in consecutive 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013. Rebuilding is nearly complete, at least on offense. The Steelers set franchise records for points and yards behind Roethlisberger, All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell and All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown. Press Rooney on if this means the franchise's identity has shifted away from its roots on the other side of the ball and he politely disagrees.

"I'd say we still strive for a team with a strong defense and that's something we'll always try to have," he said while adding the offense was "fun to watch."

The goal is to make it just as enjoyable when the defense takes the field. That part might be tricky. The Steelers finished 18th in yards allowed, their worst performance since 1991. Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau resigned earlier this month and the status of longtime fixtures Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu and James Harrison is uncertain. Rooney said it will be a few weeks before any decision is made on who to bring back and who to let walk. Keisel and Polamalu both have a year remaining on their current deals while Taylor and Harrison are free agents, though Harrison didn't rule out one more season after occasionally brilliant play at age 36.

Whoever returns out of that group would be short-term investments at best, and likely a relatively inexpensive one. That's not the case with free agent linebacker Jason Worilds. The team placed the transition tag on Worilds last spring, and he responded with 7.5 sacks. With little established depth at outside linebacker — where former first-round pick Jarvis Jones has struggled to stay out of the training room — Worilds provides some stability.

To retain him, the Steelers will need to pay him like he's one of the elite at his position even if Worilds has yet to make a Pro Bowl. Rooney declined to put Worilds in any particular category, saying only the team would like to have him return in part because his specialty happens to be the current group's biggest weakness.

"We've got to get more sacks and put more pressure on the quarterback and I think in the games we were successful, we were able to do that," Rooney said. "That's a key piece of the puzzle that we have to look at as we build this defense going into next year."

While Rooney doesn't believe new defensive coordinator Keith Butler — promoted after more than a decade as an assistant — will make drastic changes from the 3-4 scheme favored by LeBeau, he does expect Butler to offer more than tweaks. Finding new and creative ways to become disruptive in the backfield is a must.

"It is a challenge now for a defensive coordinator to keep up with these high-powered offenses," Rooney said.

And it will be Butler's responsibility to build around a core that includes defensive end Cam Heyward and linebacker Lawrence Timmons. There is a significant need for help in the secondary, especially if Taylor and Polamalu do not return. Rooney lauded the play of converted special teamers like Antwon Blake but understands defensive back will be a major need when the draft comes. The Steelers haven't taken a cornerback in the first round since Chad Scott in 1997.

That may have to change if Pittsburgh wants to get serious about returning to league's upper echelon. Rooney anticipates having a bit of money to spend in free agency, though the team rarely splurges on high-priced veterans.

"If there's an opportunity to sign somebody like that, we'll look at it," he said. "I wouldn't rule that out at this point but it kind of depends on what's available to us and what we're able to do at that point in time."


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