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by Scott Brown

I had a chance talk to Steelers president Art Rooney II today for 20 minutes at the team's practice facility.

While he trotted out the company line of not talking about contract negotiations, Rooney II made it pretty clear that the Steelers will sign coach Mike Tomlin to a new deal at some point during the offseason.

He also said the bringing back Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton is the Steelers' top priority when it comes to their own players that are free agents.

What follows is an excerpt from the exclusive Q&A with Rooney II.

Did you push for Mike Tomlin to make changes to his coaching staff and to cut ties with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians?

“Certainly we do sit down after every season and try and identify whether there are things we can do better and areas that we can improve on and talking about the coaching staff is always part of that conversation. Mike came in and said he thought we should make some changes and I certainly agreed with him. I never went to Mike and asked him to consider firing B.A., and that wasn’t on his agenda so that’s something that never came up, was never discussed. We are making some changes and there are things we certainly need to improve on so we’ve talked about all those kinds of things but we did not discuss firing B.A.”

What are your thoughts on the running game?

“We need to be better at running the football. We were not consistently good at running the football this year, and I think that was a problem, and it’s certainly something that traditionally has been one of the foundations of the team and we need to get back to that. We need to be able to run the ball to be successful. Some of or troubles in the red zone this year, I think, can be traced to that and some of our troubles holding leads this year can be traced to that. It’s an area of our offense our game that we need to be better at and more consistent at than we were this year.”

Where else does the team need to improve?

“Obviously, we have to reduce the number of sacks. Fifty sacks is not an acceptable number. It’s not good for Ben (Roethlisberger) to get hit that many times and it’s too many negative plays for the offense. On the other side of the ball, defensively, we gave up too many fourth-quarter leads. Those are things we’ve got to look at and get better at.”

Can the team get Ben to do a better job of avoiding sacks given the way he plays the game?

“Ben I think is a player who has very high aspirations for himself and for his career and for the team, so I’m sure he recognizes that 50 sacks is not an acceptable number, that he’s got to do his part in reducing them. But that’s been said during the course of the season. The offensive line’s got to do its part, receivers have to recognize the blitz, Ben’s go to get them the ball. All of those pieces have to fit together. Ben as the leader of the offense has to be able to help pull all of those pieces together and I’m sure he will. He’s someone I know wants to continue to improve and wants to get better and be considered one of the top quarterbacks in the league. I expect he’ll be working hard to get better like everyone else.”

If no CBA is reached between the players and owners before the beginning of March and the salary cap goes away will that put the Steelers at a competitive disadvantage?

“Let’s put it this way. In the long-term, I expect us to have a salary cap and this year will kind of be a one-year situation that we’ll get through. Without getting into details, I think overall we have to have a system that works for the National Football League and for all of the teams in the league. What we’ve had over the last decade or more in our collective bargaining agreement and our revenue sharing system I think has all worked well. We’ve got to find the right system and the right adjustments going forward to continue being successful.”

What is the focus of the Steelers right now?

“At this point, certainly the priority is putting the staff together and finding the best people we can find for our coaching staff, and I think we’re well under way in that regard. Once we get that sort of concluded we’ll turn our attention to getting ready for the draft and getting ready to deal with the various contract situations. It’s a jigsaw puzzle and you kind of have to put all of the pieces in place. Hopefully by the time you’ve hit May and completed the draft you’re happy that you have most of the pieces in place and you start working on grooming the team for the season.”