Tomlin confident Steelers will be competitive in '08

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PALM BEACH, Fla. -- In charge of a team they admit went downhill at the end of the 2007 season, Steelers mechanics went to work on fixing things in the new year.

They tightened a few bolts, added some chrome but also lost a wheel or two in the process. Yesterday morning, the young driver assigned the duty of trying to bring her home again next season relaxed under a warm South Florida sun and declared her ship-worthy.

"I feel good about the pieces that we have in place for '08 thus far to compete," coach Mike Tomlin said. "I have a level of comfort with some of our leadership and the guys in their roles.

"I know we're capable of being a good team. Whether or not we're capable of being a great team, which is what's going to be required to be world champs, that always will unfold inside the white lines in stadiums."

Tomlin did not express satisfaction with everything that has been done or where his team resides as it heads into the draft April 26-27. But, he was not dissatisfied either.

The highlights of the Steelers' offseason read like this:

Lost seven-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, starting outside linebacker Clark Haggans and third-string quarterback Brian St. Pierre in free agency, all expected.

Released special teams captain Clint Kriewaldt and No. 4 wide receiver Cedrick Wilson. Re-signed some of their own backup veterans, their starting quarterback, signed a linebacker to replace Kriewaldt, added third-down back Mewelde Moore, and signed center Justin Hartwig, released by Carolina, to possibly start.

Those moves, plus re-signing backup defensive ends Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason, will allow the Steelers to pursue their original goals in the draft, the coach said.

"Like we've said all offseason, all our positions are draftable," Tomlin said. "That's some of the things we've done through free agency. Anywhere we felt like we were thin positionally, we addressed it in free agency, so we could take the draft the way we're approaching it, in that we would take the best available, barring positions."

Tomlin acknowledged that although his team won the AFC North Division at 10-6 in a tiebreaker with Cleveland, which missed the playoffs, the Steelers limped home and were not at their best when January arrived. They lost four of their final five, including their playoff game against Jacksonville.

"We were a team going down and not up, that's the reality of it," Tomlin said. "That's how some teams rise to the top and win world championships while others watch. We were one of those who watched. We didn't play well enough to move on.

"We had some injuries, but injuries are part of the game. You'll never hear us make those excuses, it's just part of it. We have to try to be one of those teams on the rise in January and be part of it next year, as opposed to be on the decline."

The injuries came fast and furious and struck some of their top players near the end of last season, including to halfback Willie Parker while he was leading the NFL in rushing, to left tackle Marvel Smith, and to one of their most indispensable defensive players, end Aaron Smith.

Tomlin yesterday issued some updates on those injuries.

Parker, whose fibula was broken in the 15th game of the season, is working out and running at home in North Carolina and the Steelers are optimistic he'll be fine as new in 2008.

Receiver Hines Ward, who had knee surgery, also was working out at home, in Atlanta, but plans to return to Pittsburgh today to take part in the offseason drills.

"Things are going well with him," Tomlin said.

Defensive end Aaron Smith, who missed the final four games, including the playoff game with a torn bicep that required surgery, "looks good ... he's close to normal."

Offensive tackle Marvel Smith, who had minor back surgery in December, is doing well and working out with his teammates. "We expect him to be ready to go."

Safety Ryan Clark, who had his spleen and gall bladder removed at midseason, also has been working out at the Steelers facility, regaining his weight and "getting that pep in his step back."

Tomlin said he looks good and the Steelers hope to have him back fully this summer.

Some of the injured will be held back in the spring "to err on the side of caution," Tomlin said.

After one month of free agency, the Steelers normally are finished after making a ripple and not a splash. Tomlin, though, would not rule out anything -- as happened when the Panthers unexpectedly released their starting center in Hartwig.

"We leave no stone unturned," Tomlin said. "If people show up on the market that are not on the market at this point, we'll consider them.

"We'll continue to hash through the guys left on the market to see if their fit is feasible. That's what this time of year is about."


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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