Steelers offense passes inspection, not defense, Art Rooney II says

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Even though the Steelers have strung together 8-8 seasons and not made the playoffs two seasons in a row for the first time in the past 13 years, apparently there is 8-8 and then there is 8-8.

One year ago, Steelers president Art Rooney II expressed frustration with an 8-8 record that included five losses in the final seven games.

Wednesday, Rooney talked about his excitement for the 2014 season and how coach Mike Tomlin did a "very good job" as the Steelers went 6-2 in the second half of the season to finish 8-8 again.

"I certainly liked the way we finished," Rooney said in a 20-minute interview. "We, as far as I'm concerned, should be in the playoffs. The other side of it is we made our bed, unfortunately got off to a slow start. But I like the way we finished, I like the fact we got better as the season goes on, which is what you want. You want a team that's playing its best at the end, and I think, for the most part, that's what we did.

"It leaves me excited for next year already. We're looking forward to getting started and prepared for next year."

Rooney credited Tomlin for keeping his team in the playoff hunt right until the last game after losing the first four games for the first time in 45 years, and then going 2-6 at the halfway point of the season.

"I thought Mike did a very good job in the sense that, even through we created our own situation, I think that our team continued to play hard through adversity, and that's not always easy to do.

"They continued to fight, they continued to believe in themselves, and I think most of that is a tribute to Mike and the type of coaches and players we have here. They fought hard all the way through and, in the end, we came pretty darn close to being in the playoffs. I think we were playing our best football at the end, which is what you want to have happen, and I think that's largely due to coaching."

Rooney cited several reasons for his optimism heading into 2014:

• The improved play of a number of young players which he said shows the "arrow points up."

• The direction the offense took in the second half of the season.

"I thought we were pretty effective on offense coming down the stretch ... I would say offensively we made a lot of progress and I think that is something we want to try to build on."

• Ben Roethlisberger's play in the second half of the season, particularly getting sacked just seven times in the final seven games.

"He got better as the season went on, and that's certainly what we were hoping for. You have to like the fact that he stayed relatively clean in the second half of the season, and there's no doubt that's what we like to see. We'd like to see him last another 5, 6, 7 years, whatever it is, and, in order to do that, we have to protect him and he has to protect himself. I do think the way he performed over the last, let's say, three-fourths of the season, is what we were hoping for, yes."

• The play of rookie halfback Le'Veon Bell who "really looks to be the kind of player who can be a big contributor."

At the same time, Rooney noted the decline of the defense as a concern.

"Obviously, we want to get better. We slipped on defense in some areas this year, particularly in terms of stopping the run; we're not anywhere near the top of the league, which is where we've typically been and where we want to be. There's no doubt there's room for improvement there.

"We gave up too many big plays, there's room for improvement there. Whether it's getting younger or what other strategies we might use, we want to get better there. And that will be part of what we look at as the weeks and months go by here."

Among other topics broached by Rooney Tuesday:

• Roethlisberger might not receive the traditional quarterback extension this year. Rooney cited the team's salary-cap issues and then said, "The only thing I would say about Ben and his situation is I certainly expect that at some point we will do a contract, whether it's this season, or after next season or after the season after that, but I think Ben will be playing here beyond the current contract."

Roethlisberger's contract runs through 2015. Traditionally, the Steelers have extended their starting quarterback's contract when it has two years to run, as it does now. Rooney said that, while they've done that on a few occasions, it is "not set in stone ... it's not something that's automatic."

• Rooney is happy with general manager Kevin Colbert and the players he has acquired.

"We're not disappointed at all in the roster," Rooney said. " I think we have a lot to build on, and we're looking forward to adding to it in this year's draft."

• The Steelers informed the NFL that if they are hit with any more discipline because of Tomlin's sideline snafu in Baltimore they will appeal it. There were widespread reports that the NFL will dock the Steelers a draft pick even after fining their coach $100,000.

"I would disagree strongly if something like that were to happen to us," Rooney said.

• He would not comment on the fate of any more assistant coaches because "Mike is still going through the process." Tomlin continued to meet with players individually in his "exit" interviews Wednesday and has not yet met with his coaches. He fired offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. Friday.

• Rooney also said would not discuss individual players contracts or status when asked about linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

• Despite criticism from many venues that the Steelers have mismanaged their salary cap, Rooney said it is not in "dire" shape and "I'm satisfied we handled the cap" properly and that is a reason they've remained competitive. Our goal is to put a competitive team on the field and, by and large, we've been able to do that."

• He does not expect the Steelers to diverge from the path they've followed recently in free agency. In other words, they won't be major players, but "we're always opportunistic."

• The Steelers are going ahead with adding a second scoreboard on the north end of Heinz Field for 2014, but, while they continue discussions with the city to add approximately 3,000 seats, even if they reach an agreement it won't be soon enough for next season.

Ed Bouchette: and Twitter @EdBouchette.

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