Steelers coach Mike Tomlin speaks to the media for his final weekly news conference Wednesday.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It could have been a fun weekend in New England for the Steelers. Had they finished the job in Denver, they would be playing in the AFC championship game Sunday afternoon against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, where a weekend storm could bring more than a foot of snow. Instead, the Patriots will travel to face the Broncos in Denver, where the forecast is sunny and pleasant.
Meanwhile, the forecast for Pittsburgh remains the same: cloudy with a chance of regret.
Coach Mike Tomlin put a bow on the 2015 season at his season-ending news conference Wednesday, three days after the Steelers fell, 23-16, in an AFC divisional-round game. He is optimistic about the future, but he echoed the sentiments that many of his players have expressed in recent days. In short, the Steelers had a championship-caliber football team and let an opportunity pass through their fingers.
“I’m disappointed, and that’s just an honest answer,” Tomlin said. “I think we all are. We appreciate the support that we get from others, the acknowledgment of the fight and all of that. But we go into the journey with that understanding — that it’s going to be difficult, that’s it’s going to be a fight, that a fight is going to be required.
“We appreciate the support, but, at the same time, we set out to be world champions. That was our goal. We meant it. It’s not us this year, so there’s disappointment associated with that.”
All the top players are under contract for 2016. Six starters are free agents, but the Steelers have salary-cap room to sign the ones they want back. None are expected to command a high price on the free-agent market.
“We will prioritize those guys and work to do a great job of communicating with those guys and let that business run its course,” Tomlin said.
Four of those six starters are defenders, including three members of the defensive backfield. Starting cornerbacks William Gay and Antwon Blake and starting strong safety Will Allen are no longer under contract.
Gay is likely the highest priority among the impending free agents because he has been the team’s top cornerback the past two seasons. But other than the possible overhaul of a pass defense that ranked 30th in yards allowed, Tomlin has young players in his front seven that he can build around.
“I thought we were continually a group on the rise,” Tomlin said of his defense. “That’s what you hope for. I expect those guys to play great defense. They’ve got talent. We’re going to work to put them in position to be successful. Not successful enough to reach our hopes and dreams, obviously, in ’15. But we laid a good foundation hopefully as we move forward and start this process and know that we’re better because of the collective experiences that we shared in ’15.”
The defense made big strides in some important areas this season. It improved from 18th to 11th in points allowed, giving up on average three points fewer in 2015 than 2014. It also saw big spikes in sacks and turnovers. It was third in the NFL with 48 sacks and tied for third in turnovers with 30.
Couple that with an offense that ranked third in total yards (395) and passing yards (288) and fourth in points (26.4 points per game), and there are plenty of reasons to be high on the Steelers next season.
But Tomlin knows those numbers will not mean a thing when the team reports to Latrobe for training camp six months from now. The 2016 Steelers will create their own identity and their own story, one they hope will have a much better ending.
“Our experiences in ’15 are just that, our experiences in ’15,” Tomlin said. “I’m not seeking comfort, in terms of what happened to us this year, relative to next year. We got to lay a good foundation to chase our hopes and dreams for ’16, and I don’t go in it with any preconceived notions, based on what transpired with us this year.”
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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