With the Steelers finishing 8-8 and out of the playoffs for the second consecutive season, there's obviously some angst among the team's fans regarding the team moving forward.
But Art Rooney II isn't among those feeling anxiety about the Steelers' future. In fact, he remains hopeful that many of the issues that troubled the team in 2019 can be solved with one key addition: Ben Roethlisberger.
"Having your starting quarterback and I guess it will be 16-year-veteran quarterback back on the field is hopefully going to be, I’m not going to call it a cure-all, but certainly it will be good to have him back and hopefully playing the way he did the last time he completed a whole season for us," Rooney said Wednesday.
Roethlisberger missed all but six quarters in the 2019 season after suffering an elbow injury that required surgery to repair. The two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback will have a check up in early February and should get a better time line on when he can begin to ramp up his rehab.
But the Steelers remain hopeful he can return to play at his 2018 level, when he led the NFL in passing yards and set career highs in touchdown passes with 34.
"Everything we hear so far is positive, particularly Ben’s attitude is positive," Rooney said. "He seems to feel good about it. He still is in the early stages of his rehab. He hasn’t been able to do a whole lot yet, but that’s going to ramp up over the next couple of months. We’re anxious to see his progress."
That had better be the case. Roethlisberger signed a two-year contract extension worth $68 million that kicks in for 2020.
If his progress is slowed or he's not ready to play at the start of the 2020 season, it will likely be third-year player Mason Rudolph who would replace him. Like Mike Tomlin, whom Rooney thought did a good job in 2019 holding things together, the Steelers owner said he was pleased with the progress made by Rudolph, who started eight games and appeared in two others.
But there were obviously issues, from two injuries, including a season-ending shoulder issue, and the incident in Cleveland that resulted in him being fined for his part in an on-field brawl and the fallout from that.
"We’re all comfortable with Mason being our backup. He had an unusual season," Rooney said. "He had to deal with some unusual circumstances, including injuries and everything else. I think it was an experience for him. Hopefully, the old story, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, hopefully it was that kind of situation. I think we’re all pretty comfortable with Mason coming back as our backup and continuing to develop."
To that point, the Steelers hired a quarterbacks coach earlier in the day, tapping former Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada to handle those duties.
But that doesn't mean Rooney was unhappy with the job offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner did in 2019, when he also served as the quarterbacks coach.
With Roethlisberger out, the Steelers started Rudolph in eight games and undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges in six others. The Steelers stayed in contention for most of the season, getting to 8-5 before losing their last three games and scoring just 10 points in each one in that stretch.
The Steelers finished 31st in total offense and 27th in scoring offense.
"I think any offensive coordinator in the league that winds up with three different starting quarterbacks over the course of the season is going to tell you it was going to be a challenge. It is difficult to evaluate," Rooney said. "I’m sure Randy, as with everyone, would tell you there are things he wants to improve on, things we can do better, things we learned from this season. Hopefully, all those things can help us better prepare for next season."
One of those things would be running the ball more consistently. With 2018 Pro Bowl running back James Conner missing all but seven quarters in the second half of the season, the Steelers ranked 29th in the NFL running the ball at 90.4 yards per game.
Rooney has long wanted the Steelers to run the ball more efficiently and reiterated that desire Wednesday.
"We’ve talked about it before, I’d like to see us be a team that is more consistent running the football," he said. "That’’s a big part of the game."
That was even more so the case in 2019, when the league had 16 1,000-yard rushers, up from nine in 2018. And though the NFL's top rushing team in the regular season, the Ravens, were eliminated from postseason play last weekend, the teams that were second and third in running the ball, respectively, the 49ers and Titans, both are in the conference finals.
"I think we’ve seen in these playoffs you can run the ball and be successful," Rooney said. "On the other hand, there are teams that are passing the ball pretty good, too. I’m not going to jump to too many conclusions, but it’s an important component in terms of being able to play at the level we want to play at. In a place like Pittsburgh, running the the ball, being able to, is a factor. It should be."
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