On the Steelers: Team's way done with patience

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The Steelers delayed their offseason by one month and now the NFL owners are working on extending it. As Hines Ward said this past week, there is a lot of uncertainty, and as Kevin Colbert said a week earlier, there is so much uncertainty that they had not even talked about whether they will sign any of their potential free agents before March 4.

So, what will the Steelers do and what do they need to do?

The answers are not much and not much.

Teams were allowed to begin putting franchise tags on players Thursday, and no one should be surprised that the Steelers have not done so. They can sign their own players only through March 3, either to new contracts or contract extensions. No one should be surprised if they sign no one.

The so-called Steelers Way does not resemble a two-minute offense; it carries a heavy dose of patience, and they won't discard that merely because a lockout looms. If anything, the lockout could promote even more patience.

Whenever a new collective bargaining agreement is reached between the owners and players, the sides are likely to agree on a short period to permit teams to franchise players (if indeed that remains a tool in the new CBA), to sign players and to present tenders or not to restricted free agents (if that also remains in place).

A new CBA likely will not include radical changes in the system, but there could be new wrinkles such as tweaking how they pro-rate a signing bonus and the service time needed to become either a restricted or unrestricted free agent.

Until those are known, many teams will be reluctant to sign players and they can sign them only until March 3 because starting March 4 all business will grind to a halt, provided the owners lock the players out, which seems certain at this point. That is less than three weeks away.

There was one report that LaMarr Woodley expects to be franchised. That would cost the Steelers a one-year salary of more than $10 million with no guarantee there will be a franchise tag under the new rules. It also might establish a base for negotiating a new contract. They used that tag on Max Starks, so it is possible they would do so with Woodley to buy time to try to negotiate a multi-year contract with him. But neither Woodley nor any other player can sign elsewhere until there is a new CBA, so patience again should rule the day.

That takes care of the first "not much."

As for what the Steelers need to do to enhance their chances of winning Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis: Again, not much.

They need to go about their routine of drafting good players and not necessarily trying to fill a certain need. Their biggest needs looking at their 2010 season are cornerback and offensive tackle, but that does not mean they will automatically use their first two draft picks on those positions.

It will depend on who is available to them when they draft or if they might be able to make a trade to move up to get a quality corner or tackle. Usually, there are neither of those in free agency without a stiff price tag, something the Steelers rarely indulge.

"We never try to attack this thing for any one given year," Colbert said as a reminder. "The goal of the organization is to have a chance to compete every year. We [had] a chance this year. Beyond that, we'll try to retool it and see where it stands -- this team, this playoff run and then draft preparation. Where that will lead, I don't know."

The Steelers came within a touchdown of winning their seventh Super Bowl and their second in three seasons and third in six. That is a sign that this team is no fluke, that it can remain competitive for the long run.

As with all teams, however, it has its issues that must be worked out. It starts on defense, where Ike Taylor, their only proven strong cornerback, can become a free agent. The issue of age on defense, however, has been overplayed. Yes, linebacker James Farrior turned 36 last month and the defensive line is well into its 30s except for Ziggy Hood. But neither Casey Hampton nor Brett Keisel showed signs of slowing down, so the Steelers still have time to find another lineman or two over the next year or two. And if Aaron Smith stays healthy, that gives them five strong linemen, including unrestricted free agent-to-be Chris Hoke.

If they lose Woodley, Jason Worilds will be next up and while the linebackers might take a hit, they will remain a strong group.

Getting another good cornerback should be a top priority, but the defense that was No. 2 overall won't fall off next season.

It is no secret the offense needs more linemen and it could become critical at tackle. Max Starks had neck surgery that involved a fusion of the vertebrae, and Willie Colon surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon. Neither is guaranteed a recovery to the point they will be as good as they were before those injuries. If they are, the Steelers will have their starting tackles back and suddenly the position does not look so desperate. If they do not, they are in trouble. Flozell Adams, who is signed at $5 million for 2011, turns 36 in May. Jonathan Scott is not a starting left tackle. Tony Hills will enter his fourth season having played hardly at all in his first three. Trai Essex is looked upon more as a guard than a tackle.

The Steelers also could use another guard but that is not critical, especially after they got an extended look at Doug Legursky's play at center for Maurkice Pouncey. Legursky could compete at guard or at the least he gives them a strong backup at guard and center.

Other than that, the Steelers are set on offense. They have an excellent tight end, quarterback, running back and receivers. Much was made of Mike Wallace's low production in the postseason but his 21-yard average on 60 catches in the regular season was second in the NFL, he caught 10 touchdown passes and his 1,257 yards were seventh most in team history and more than Santonio Holmes ever had.

Wallace is on the verge of being a star and he was open for two long passes that did not reach him in the Super Bowl. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown will only get better, and Hines Ward remains a good receiver, as he showed in the postseason.

There is no reason to believe the Steelers will not be as good in 2011 as they were the past season, maybe better if they can avoid a few injuries. Plus, their starting quarterback should be able to open the '11 season with them.

Bookies have made the Steelers the No. 3 favorite to win the Super Bowl, behind Green Bay and New England. That's a long climb, but they've reached that game in three of the past six seasons and there's nothing glaring standing in their way to make another go of it in 2011, other than a lockout.


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