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Steelers' Rooney prepared for offseason of change

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 2:27 p.m.

Team president Art Rooney II said the Steelers should be in the playoffs right now. Whenever they get there in the foreseeable future, he expects Ben Roethlisberger to be their quarterback.

The Steelers want Roethlisberger to spend his entire career in Pittsburgh, but despite their seemingly ominous salary cap situation, Rooney said it might not be necessary to work out a new contract with their highest-paid player this offseason. Roethlisberger's current deal runs through 2015.

“At some point we will do a contract, whether it's this season, or after next season or the season after that,” Rooney said Wednesday. “I think Ben will be playing here beyond the current contract.”

During a wide-ranging interview, Rooney said the Steelers would appeal any decision by the league to take away a draft pick for coach Mike Tomlin's sideline interference in Baltimore. Tomlin already has been fined $100,000, but the Steelers also face the possible loss of a low-round draft pick.

“I would disagree strongly if something like that were to happen to us,” Rooney said. “As far as I'm concerned, it's over, and it should be.”

According to the NFL, vice president Ray Anderson would decide if the Steelers should be penalized a draft pick. Any appeal would be filed with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Rooney also wouldn't address any player's contract status — including oft-injured linebacker LaMarr Woodley or aging cornerback Ike Taylor — or any more possible coaching staff changes, saying the evaluation process is ongoing. Offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr. was fired Friday after one season.

Rooney sounded more upbeat about this 8-8 season than he did in 2012, saying, “I like the way we finished, I like the fact we got better as the season goes on, which is what you want. ... It leaves me excited for next year already.” In contrast, he referred a year ago to the 8-8 record of 2012 as “clearly frustrating.”

However, he said these Steelers' 6-2 second-half record doesn't override the 0-4 start because, “We, as far as I'm concerned, should be in the playoffs.”

Rooney said the Steelers are preparing for the offseason as usual, meaning they will look for reasonably priced players in free agency and to draft well.

“We're always opportunistic,” he said.

But he agreed this offseason is different because the Steelers have 21 unrestricted free agents, plus what appears to be a significant amount of salary-cap restructuring to do. Currently, seven players are set to count a combined $85 million against the projected $130 million cap in 2014, led by Roethlisberger's $18.895 million.

Other significant cap hits are Woodley's $13.59 million, Taylor's $11.94 million, Lawrence Timmons' $11.8 million, Troy Polamalu's $10.887 million, Heath Miller's $9.466 million and Antonio Brown's $8.47 million.

Roethlisberger's salary is affordable by franchise quarterback standards, $12.1 million in 2014 and $11.6 million in 2015. But his cap hit for the next two seasons would be a burdensome $37.29 million that could affect the Steelers' ability to sign needed complementary players, especially on defense.

Rooney wouldn't call the cap situation “dire” and said, “I'm satisfied with the way we've handled the cap. Our goal every year is put a team on the field that can compete and win a division.”

But, he added, “We have decisions to make. ... There's a number of guys we'd like to try and figure out a way to keep them, so there's work to be done.”

That group likely includes outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who becomes an unrestricted free agent in March if he doesn't re-sign with the Steelers before then.

Rooney was pleased with running back Le'Veon Bell's improvement and Roethlisberger's strong second half in which he largely avoided sacks. But he said the Steelers must “get better” on defense, especially a run defense that ranked 21st after being No. 2 in 2012.

“We're not anywhere near the top of the league, which is where we've typically been and where we want to be,” he said. “We gave up too many big plays.”

Rooney also said:

• Tomlin did “a very good job in the sense that ... our team continued to play hard through adversity, and that's not always easy to do.”

• Game officials “by and large have a difficult job and they do a good job” — even though the league acknowledged a late-game error in the Chiefs-Chargers game might have kept the Steelers out of the playoffs. But he said replays take too long and officiating “is something, I think, we need to do better.”

• When asked about general manager Kevin Colbert's job performance, “We have a lot of young players who, coming out of this season, the arrow's pointing up. So we're not disappointed at all with the roster.”

• He is opposed to division champions being denied home games to lower-seeded teams with better records if the playoffs are expanded.

• The Steelers will install a second scoreboard at Heinz Field for next season, but a 3,000-seat expansion must wait until at least 2015 while negotiations continue.

• The late-season no-shows, including about 20,000 on Dec. 15 against Cincinnati, aren't a big worry because the Steelers had similar issues during non-playoff seasons in the late '80s and late '90s.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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