Steelers face tough decisions as critical offseason looms following early playoff exit



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PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin likes his quarterback and wants to keep him. Signing Ben Roethlisberger to a new long-term deal may be the easiest thing to check off on the Pittsburgh Steelers' lengthy offseason "to do" list.

Pittsburgh returned to the top of the AFC North in 2014, going 11-5 and finishing with a perfect 4-0 run through December. Staying there, however, will require another big step from the young core on both sides of the ball and some shrewd decision making by a franchise that has now gone four years without a playoff victory, the club's longest drought in two decades.

"We didn't realize our goal and our goal is and always will be to be the champs," Tomlin said.

The Steelers' return to the postseason lasted all of six days. Baltimore pushed them around in a 30-17 wild-card win last Saturday as Pittsburgh struggled to find a consistent rhythm without running back Le'Veon Bell, whose hyperextended right knee forced him to watch in sweatpants. Bell's knee might be good enough to play in the Pro Bowl later this month and there should be no ill effects moving forward.

Just who else will be along for the ride when Pittsburgh begins organized team activities in the spring remains uncertain, especially on defense. The status of everyone from Hall of Fame coordinator Dick LeBeau to safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor is unknown. Tomlin declined to confirm LeBeau would return for a 57th season on the sideline, saying he needed to speak to LeBeau first.

Either way, whoever is in charge of the defense will take over a unit in the midst of an identity shift. Polamalu is weighing retirement while Taylor and defensive end Brett Keisel — who ended the season injured — might not have a choice. Linebacker James Harrison hasn't ruled out one more year after an eye-opening 5 1/2 sacks in 10 games.

Here are a couple things to remember for Pittsburgh's offseason:

ON TO 2015: Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert have started the process of looking to next fall even as the pain of an early postseason exit lingers.

"It never gets stale," Tomlin said. "You better love it because the wheels keep turning. Kevin was like, 'Hey, sorry about the season, want to talk (salary) cap?' That's Kevin's mentality."

KEEPING BEN: The Steelers have two months before free agency begins, though their biggest order of business will be in house. They gambled by not signing Roethlisberger to a contract extension and he responded by tying for the league lead in yards passing and tied a career high with 32 touchdown passes. He wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh, but it is going to cost them. That's fine by Tomlin.

"We've got a good quarterback. I like him," Tomlin said. "I'd like to keep him."

Tomlin also dismissed the idea that Roethlisberger and tight end Heath Miller did not receive proper medical attention after briefly leaving during Pittsburgh's final drive on Saturday night. Roethlisberger complained of "whiplash" and Tomlin said neither player displayed concussion-like symptoms.

"I take offense to assumption we would put those guys in harm's way," he said.

WHAT IN THE WORILDS: Outside linebacker Jason Worilds will hit the open market as a free agent after registering 7 1/2 sacks. He said Monday he would happily stay in Pittsburgh if things work out but will weigh his options with a hefty payday in the offing.

YOUNG CORE: In Bell, wide receivers Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, center Maurkice Pouncey and defensive end Cam Heyward, Pittsburgh has a growing group of cornerstones expected to carry the team through the rest of the decade. The Steelers have rebuilt themselves on the run and their streak of 11 consecutive non-losing seasons is the second-longest in the NFL. That still doesn't quite pass the test at the only place with six Vince Lombardi Trophies in the front hallway.

Asked to grade 2014, guard David DeCastro shrugged and said "F I guess" based on the expectation that each year should end underneath celebratory confetti at the Super Bowl.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Even after setting a new franchise mark for points and finishing second in total yards, Tomlin is confident the offense can improve.

"If there's a ceiling in this thing it's because you put in on yourself from a perception standpoint," he said. "Why can't we get better in all areas?"


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