PITTSBURGH -- Art Rooney II, in a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday, lauded the direction of the Steelers’ offense.
But he also said the Steelers have to improve across the board on the other side of the ball.
The Steelers slipped from first in total defense in 2012 to 13th. They also gave up an average of 25 more rushing yards per game while plummeting from second in the NFL to 20th in run defense.
“We need to be better,” the Steelers president said. “There’s no denying that. We weren’t good enough against the run when you look at where we ranked in the league. We weren’t good enough taking the ball away, rushing the passer. There’s things we need to improve on.”
The easy part is identifying where the Steelers were lacking on defense this season. More problematic is fixing a myriad of problems given the uncertainty on that side of the ball because of the confluence of age, salary-cap considerations and impending free agency.
Rooney said the Steelers aren’t in serious salary-cap trouble, but it’s no secret that the organization doesn’t have a lot of room under it, either.
And the cap is only expected to receive a modest bump from the $123 million teams were allowed to use on player salaries in 2013.
Tough decisions will have to be made during the offseason.
Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor are among the players that the Steelers could ask to take a pay cut or outright release.
There are other questions too.
Is Steve McLendon the right fit at nose tackle or is he more suited to playing as a situational defensive tackle and end? Will the Steelers be able to re-sign outside linebacker Jason Worilds before he becomes an unrestricted free agent on March 11?
Rooney said the Steelers’ top priority in free agency will be re-signing their own players. Worilds should be at the top of that list and the Steelers may consider using a transition or franchise tag on him before the start of the free-agent signing period.
Then there is the secondary.
Free safety Ryan Clark is unlikely to be re-signed and there is a chance that Taylor and even Polamalu won’t be back in 2014.
The Steelers need to get younger in the secondary but they also need to have players ready to step in for departed veterans.
Can you name the cornerbacks on the Steelers’ roster other than Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay? Would the Steelers be either foolhardy or daring enough to replace both of their starting safeties in 2014?
The position will be addressed in the draft and maybe even in free agency where, as usual, the Steelers will pick their spots.
When asked if he buys into the notion that the decline of the Steelers’ defense last season could be linked to age catching up with the unit, Rooney said, “I’m not too concerned about age, it’s just getting better. We’ll be working hard on that this offseason.”