Tomlin disappointed but hopeful
PITTSBURGH — Keith Butler's first year calling the shots on defense impressed his boss. Cortez Allen's inability to get on the field, not so much.
Butler will be back in 2016 to show Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin what else he can do as defensive coordinator. The odds Allen — the franchise's onetime lockdown corner of the future — is at Butler's disposal seem uncertain at best.
Less than three days removed from a taut 23-16 loss to Denver in the AFC divisional playoffs, Tomlin is already working toward 2016. Maybe it's a good idea not to linger too long on 2015, when a team capable of winning a Super Bowl never got healthy enough or consistent enough to produce a seventh Lombardi Trophy.
"We go into the journey with the understanding that it's going to be difficult," Tomlin said Wednesday. "When we said to be world champion was our goal, we meant it and it was not us this year and there's disappointment associated with that."
Not that Tomlin is going to take too long feeling sorry for himself or his team. He got that out of the way in an emotionally charged locker room on Sunday as he addressed a group that led the AFC's top seed into the fourth quarter despite missing stars Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell or Maurkice Pouncey, all out with injury.
"At just about every turn, I was proud of the manner of which our guys dealt with adversity we endured or created," Tomlin said.
Even if the result — an 11-7 record that featured an equal mix of soaring victories and baffling losses — wasn't what the Steelers expected when they reported for training camp. It wasn't quite enough for a team where the standard is either a championship parade in early February or misery.
While the core on both sides of the ball remains intact heading toward next summer, there are plenty of questions that need to be answered in the offseason, though Butler's status working with a young and talented front seven isn't among them. Tasked with providing more chaos in opponent's backfield, the Steelers finished third in the league with 48 sacks while producing 30 turnovers, the club's highest mark since 2010.
"I thought we were continually a group on the rise and that's what you hope for," Tomlin said. "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."
How to move forward — and who do to it with — remains up in the air.
Allen, given a $25-million contract extension on the eve of the 2014 season, played just one game this season due to a knee problem. Asked if he's convinced Allen can be an impact player going forward, Tomlin said flatly "I'm not."
At least Allen appears on the mend. The same goes for Pouncey, who busted an ankle in August and sat out the entire season. Bell, likewise, is well on his way back from a torn MCL in his right knee suffered the day after Halloween.
Several of their teammates will address issues that popped up during the year. Safety Mike Mitchell and punter Jordan Berry will undergo shoulder surgery. Linebacker Ryan Shazier and tight end Matt Spaeth will have arthroscopic knee surgery while All-Pro guard David DeCastro and right tackle Marcus Gilbert will have procedures on their ankles.
Tomlin anticipates all of them to be available by the time July comes around, if not sooner.
Other concerns to keep tabs on over the next few months:
How about Harrison? Tomlin laughed when asked if he had an exit interview with linebacker James Harrison, who is considering retirement. Harrison has one year left on his deal and had five sacks at age 37 but isn't sure whether to return. Tomlin called Harrison "a unique" player, one that will be given the time necessary to see how he wants to proceed.
Just for kicks: Shaun Suisham is the most accurate kicker in team history but missed all year after injuring his right knee in the Hall of Fame Game in August. Chris Boswell came in and made 29 of 32 field goals and drilled three in the shifting winds in Denver on Sunday. Both are signed through next season. "Two very capable kickers is a good problem to have," Tomlin said.
Backing up Ben: Ben Roethlisberger remains the franchise quarterback for the rest of the decade but he also missed four games due to injury. Backup Bruce Gradkowski — out all year with a hand problem — is a free agent. So is Mike Vick. Landry Jones performed well at times but doesn't seem like a lock to be the No. 2. "It depends on what my options are," he said.
Hold the line? Left tackle Kelvin Beachum and right guard Ramon Foster will become free agents in March. It's uncertain what the market will bring, but Beachum has the kind of versatility that the Steelers covet. "He's a smart, talented and driven guy," Tomlin said. "There would be very little I could say he couldn't do."