Tomlin sacks the likelihood of a Steelers decline

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PHOENIX -- It might not carry the same bold swagger as his, "We will unleash hell in December" message issued late in the 2009 season.

And it remains to be seen if the directive proves to be more prophetic than that one, which ended up ringing hollow when the Steelers immediately lost their next two games to culminate a five-game losing streak.

But Mike Tomlin had a bold message for those questioning the decline of the Steelers after so many key losses and defections in the offseason.

"That's March talk," Tomlin said. "I'll see you at stadiums in the fall."

Tomlin was not pretending to dismiss what lies ahead for the Steelers in 2013, perhaps even beyond. They have already lost three key starters in free agency -- Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall and Keenan Lewis -- and released two others who were still under contract, Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison and guard Willie Colon.

What's more, they are not expected to re-sign two other starters who are unrestricted free agents -- tackle Max Starks and nose tackle Casey Hampton.

"I acknowledge that we have a ways to go in a lot of areas," Tomlin said Tuesday at the AFC coaches breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, site of the NFL owners meetings.

"We're a team in transition, as we always are. Players are ascending, players are descending. We're acquiring players and losing players. I think that's part of this time of year. I think that includes some unfortunate transactions, if you will, and you can characterize James [Harrison] as that.

"We respect what he's done throughout his career in Pittsburgh, but we also acknowledge that change is part of football and we look forward to moving forward with a new a cast of characters that will be challenged to deliver in ways that he did."

Tomlin's message is similar to what general manager Kevin Colbert and team president Art Rooney II have maintained since the start of free agency -- the Steelers are not a team that is rebuilding.

At the same time, he never backed off from telling media members at his table that the Steelers "were an 8-8 team and we're not going to hide from that."

He said the Steelers lost five games by three points -- including the final two to Dallas and Cincinnati -- because "we weren't good enough."

Said Tomlin: "I think that good teams win close games. Teams that aren't lose those games. Obviously, we did a year ago. Our goal and our charge moving forward is to be on the other side of that."

But there are questions on both sides of the ball. Here is what Tomlin had to say on several other subjects:

• On the performance of his offense in their first year under coordinator Todd Haley:

"I thought we did some good things early. I thought we waned down the stretch."

• On the relationship of Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger: "I think it's going to be a healthy one and one that grows. Both guys are geared toward winning and are unselfish from that standpoint. I'm excited about watching it continue to grow."

• On using more zone-blocking schemes with new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr.: "We'll lean on the strength of our guys. It's something we're going to explore. But we're not going to move too far from what the guys are capable of doing."

• On signing former tight end Matt Spaeth: "Here's a guy who's an aggressive guy, the type of football demeanor that we embrace. He understands how we do business."

• On new backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski: "He's a fiery competitor. I think regardless of circumstances, Bruce has been in a number of cities. I have had the pleasure of competing against him and seeing him do his thing. That's one thing you can't question about him -- he's a football junkie."

Draft pick-up

The Steelers were awarded an extra sixth-round pick in this year's draft -- one of 32 compensatory selections awarded to 16 teams by the NFL.

The Steelers received the extra selection because they lost cornerback William Gay in free agency after the 2011 season.

Under league rules, a team losing more or better compensatory free agents than it acquires is eligible to receive compensatory draft picks.

The Steelers did not sign a free agent of equal or greater value than Gay.

Curiously, the Steelers recently re-signed Gay.

Steelers - mobilehome

Gerry Dulac: and Twitter: @gerrydulac. First Published March 20, 2013 4:30 AM


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