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01-11-2010, 08:53 PM
After missing playoffs, Steelers will have different look in 2010
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer, dlolley@observer-reporter.com
http://www.observer-reporter.com/or/loc ... -2009-wrap (http://www.observer-reporter.com/or/localsports/01-11-2010-Steelers-2009-wrap)

PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Steelers began their offseason much earlier than expected after failing to make the playoffs for only the third time in nine seasons. Chances are, they will be a different team in a few months.

The one constant in the NFL is that nothing stays the same and that's particularly true when the results aren't acceptable. For the Steelers, not reaching the playoffs a season after winning the Super Bowl was unacceptable.

Head coach Mike Tomlin fired the first two salvos last week when special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky and offensive line coach Larry Zierlein were fired. Those will likely be the only changes on the coaching staff, but the roster will have a very different look next season.

"One thing I will acknowledge is that things rarely stay the same," said Tomlin. "You've got to proceed with that assumption in mind."

Eight players who started games this season for the Steelers will be restricted or unrestricted free agents, meaning the team trumpeted the fact that it returned 20 of 22 starters from the Super Bowl will likely be breaking in a several of new starters next season.

"We're in the process of reviewing that. I'd like to think that we've got enough quality players and coaches that we will perennially be in the fight," Tomlin said. "That's my feeling, but I'm going to let the tape talk to me and guide me."

Tomlin might not like what he sees.

The defense, which seemingly got old overnight, has six key players who will be free agents March 1. Clouding that issue is the fact that there could be no new collective bargaining agreement in place by March 1, which would make 2010 an uncapped season. The NFL has had a salary cap since 1992.

With no cap, teams can spend as much as they want in free agency. And with no salary basement, some teams could jettison high-salaried players, possibly creating a glut of veterans on the open market. It also could impact players such as offensive tackle Willie Colon, who, after completing his fifth NFL season, is set to become an unrestricted free agent. If there is no collective bargaining agreement, players with less than six years of experience will be restricted free agents instead of unrestricted.

The Steelers will likely handle free agency as they normally do - signing one or two key players.

In staggering to a 9-7 record, the Steelers were an up-and-down team. After opening the season 1-2, they won their next five games to improve to 6-2. Then came a five-game losing streak followed by wins in their final three games.

Tomlin, however, is not so concerned about that five-game losing streak as he is with the fact the Steelers were 2-4 against AFC North opponents.

"It starts there. That is the only guaranteed ticket to the (postseason)," he said. "We were 0-3 on the road in our division. If you want to be a world-championship-caliber team, you've got to be able to go into a hostile environment versus known competitors and win. We weren't able to do that."

One thing that was missing - particularly against division rivals - was the physical play that has typified past Pittsburgh teams. The Steelers became a pass-oriented offense and were beaten at the line of scrimmage by Cincinnati and Cleveland. Tomlin was particularly upset following a 13-6 loss to the Browns - the Steelers' largest margin of defeat - in which Pittsburgh rushed for only 77 yards while allowing 171, the most by a Cleveland team against the Steelers since 1972.

"I thought our level of energy in Cleveland was below the line," Tomlin said. "I thought that we got out-hit and out-hustled in Cleveland and that was a concern."

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will return. Establishing a balanced offense and a physical running game behind running back Rashard Mendenhall will be a must for Arians.

The Steelers attempted 545 passes compared to only 428 runs, the latter their smallest total since 1991. While the passing game produced with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing for more than 4,000 yards, it often bogged down inside the 20-yard line. The Steelers ranked 22nd in scoring touchdowns from inside the red zone.

Defensively, the Steelers could replace half of their starting secondary plus several backups. Three quarters of the secondary that started the regular-season finale in Miami - cornerback Deshea Townsend and safeties Tyrone Carter and Ryan Clark - are unrestricted free agents. Each is more than 30 years old.

Cornerback William Gay, who started 14 games before being replaced by Townsend, is a restricted free agent. That could leave cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu as the lone holdovers.

The Steelers fell from No. 1 in pass defense in 2008 to 16th this season, and they were 28th in defensive third-down conversions.

"Situational football defines us," Tomlin said. "I've said that, in good times and in bad. It's no surprise to me that we were below the line at times in that area. That's why I put emphasis on it. It's the difference between winning and losing."