Record a rallying point for Steelers

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With the Penguins knee-deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Pirates holding one of the top three records in the National League, the Steelers will open their spring practices today trying to forget their worst record since Bill Cowher coached the team.

"We're [ticked] off we didn't make the playoffs," Michigan alum Larry Foote told over the weekend. "On top of that, our rival won the Super Bowl. I know guys are taking it personally. It's just a whole different mindset to the offseason. I know guys are ready to get back where we need to be."

The Steelers were in the thick of the playoff hunt last season until they lost at home to Cincinnati, 13-10, in the 15th game. They finished 8-8, tying their record in Cowher's last season (2006) and their worst since they went 6-10 in 2003. They also finished third in the AFC North behind Baltimore, which won the division and the Super Bowl, and Cincinnati, a wild-card playoff team.

Many players from the 2012 Steelers will not line up for practice today because they were released, signed elsewhere as free agents or not signed at all. They include James Harrison, Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall, Casey Hampton, Max Starks, Keenan Lewis, Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Will Allen, Ryan Mundy, Doug Legursky and Chris Rainey.

General manager Kevin Colbert pointed out many times the past several months that those player departures came from a team that went 8-8, as if that minimizes the talent loss. "I guess it's easier to make decisions to change when you're 8-8 than when you're 12-4," he said.

Despite that, Colbert insisted on many occasions that his team was not one in transition because that would imply they will not compete for a Super Bowl. Definitions aside, there will be more changes this season after the release of the Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith before the 2012 season.

The Steelers also will be missing their most valuable player from last season, Heath Miller. He had surgery to repair two of the three ligaments that were torn in his right knee in the 15th game of the season. His status for the start of the 2013 season remains unclear but he won't be able to practice this spring.

Also out is linebacker Sean Spence, still recovering from a wicked knee injury in the fourth exhibition game of his rookie season in 2012 that threatens his career. He is not expected to play this year.

Steelers president Art Rooney, for one, will be particularly interested in the physical shape of his players as they go through these spring drills that actually began last month with organized weight lifting and training.

Rooney noted the unusually high number of injuries his team had in 2012, and said the Steelers would look into various aspects of their training regimen.

"In terms of things that are within our control, we have to look at those things and make sure we are doing the best we can," Rooney said in January. "I think the other thing we have to do is to make sure our players are aware that under the rules we are all operating under now, it's more on them to make sure they are performing and doing their offseason conditioning.

"We only have access to them for nine weeks, which is not that many weeks in the overall scheme of things. I think it is incumbent on the individual players to be more aware of that. I think they are.

"Most of our players now go to one of these off-site training programs and participate in those things, at least for some part of the offseason. There is a lot that goes into it. We will look at everything we have under our control. Some of the individual players have to take it upon themselves."

Sixth-round pick signs

The Steelers signed sixth-round draft choice Vince Williams, a linebacker who played at Florida State University, to a four-year contract. Williams is the second of their nine draft picks under contract. Safety Shamarko Thomas, a fourth-round pick, signed last week.

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For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at Ed Bouchette: and Twitter @EdBouchette.

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