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Rooney: Secondary is new priority for Steelers

| Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, 9:03 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers safety Mike Mitchell is one of the few proven commodities in the defensive backfield.

It was almost a year to the day that Steelers president Art Rooney II sat among a small collection of reporters a few weeks after the season to declare his team needed to find a way to pressure the quarterback more.

Rooney went as far as saying that would be the organization's main focus during the offseason.

On Thursday, in the same room tucked inside UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, the declaration came about the secondary.

Rooney didn't go as far as pinpointing the secondary as where the main offseason improvement will be focused, but he didn't shy away from pointing fingers at the obvious.

“I think we all agree that we need to be better in general as a pass defense,” Rooney said.

However, that might not necessarily mean dramatic changes.

The Steelers head into the offseason with five of their eight major players in the secondary from this year not under contract — William Gay, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin, Robert Golden and Will Allen — and the possibility of their highest-paid cornerback, Cortez Allen, being a post-June 1 release.

That leaves Ross Cockrell and Mike Mitchell as the only guarantees returning with unknown youngsters Senquez Golson and Doran Grant as the other options.

“I think when you look statistically, we weren't where we would like to be in pass defense,” Rooney said. “I would say that's an area we know we want to improve in. We certainly made progress on defense and got better as the year went on.”

The Steelers defense made strides from last year and especially in the area Rooney pointed out after the season.

The Steelers went from four consecutive years of mid-30 sacks to being third in the league with 48 this past season. They were able to put together a solid first year under new defensive coordinator Keith Butler.

The Steelers finished 21st in total defense, but that was mostly because they gave up the third-most passing yards at 271 per game.

“We need to be better than that, Rooney said. “On that front, I would say no, we aren't satisfied with where we are. I am not going to suggest that we need to do something dramatically different.”

Rooney said the Steelers will have to do some work to get into salary cap compliancy by the start of the new fiscal year in early March but that it is manageable. Still, that doesn't mean they will go hard after a free agent cornerback such as the Carolina Panthers' Josh Norman.

Help will likely come from the draft, however, the Steelers tend to shy away from cornerback in the first round. They haven't taken one with their first pick since Chad Scott in 1997. General manager Kevin Colbert never has taken one.

As far as free agents, Dewayne Washington was the last notable signing, in 1998, to pair with Scott. Washington started 92 games in six years for the Steelers.

“Obviously, we have to look at some opportunities this offseason, both in terms of free agency and the draft,” Rooney said. “So, it's something we have to keep working on.”

Instead, the Steelers have used mid-round picks on the position. Some have worked out (Gay and Ike Taylor), and others haven't (Allen, Curtis Brown, Shaq Richardson, Terry Hawthorne).

The verdict is still out on last year's second-round pick Golson, who missed the entire season after suffering a shoulder injury in the spring, and Grant might be moved to safety.

“It's a combination of things,” Rooney said about their secondary issues.

“We've made some mistakes. There's no denying that, regarding some of the evaluations. Having said that, we still have players in that group that we think can improve. That's what we are looking forward to: Having that group get better as the years go on. That's what we are looking for this upcoming offseason.”

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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