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Tomlin: Losses of key players won't derail Steelers' expectations

| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 6:21 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin speaks to the media during his final press conference of the season on the South Side Monday, December 31, 2012. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

PHOENIX — Are the salary cap-restrained Steelers beginning a steep and inevitable decline? Coach Mike Tomlin's response is an emphatic no.

Mike Wallace, James Harrison, Keenan Lewis and Rashard Mendenhall are gone from a disappointing team that went 8-8 and, according to some players' postseason comments, was beset by leadership and locker room issues. Already a national perception is building that the Steelers' inability to replace key starters because of their cap issues means the worst is yet to come for a team accustomed to yearly success.

Tomlin, speaking to Pittsburgh media for the first time since the day after the season ended, expects the Steelers to be better — not much worse — in 2013.

What he isn't offering yet is any tangible, here-it-is-on-paper reasons why there is reason for optimism.

“I know what the prognostication is … the reality is we're an 8-8 team, and that's probably more acceptable in some places than it is in our place,” Tomlin said Sunday at the annual NFL meetings. “I hope we've got a scalded group. I believe that we do. I'm not looking to put anyone at ease in that regard. We've got to be better in '13, we've got to do better than in '12, and I think we'll have a group that can do that.”

General manager Kevin Colbert all but shrugged off the departures of Wallace, Lewis and Mendenhall to free agency, saying, “You could also argue that we lost pieces from an 8-8 team.”

“Can we get better? We hope,” Colbert said. “Had we re-signed folks, we were hoping to be better but now that we didn't, we have to find players via free agency and the draft, and we hope to be a better team.”

Tomlin, unaware of Colbert's comments, said losing key players can make a team better because on-the-roster players emerge and others who might not otherwise be drafted are selected.

“We may never replace James, but we'll have an opportunity to strengthen ourselves in other areas and I think that's what you look at when you look at things from a change standpoint,” Tomlin said. “No, we won't be able to replace James Harrison, no we won't be able to replace Mike Wallace; those guys are who they are. But those voids will allow us to strengthen ourselves in those areas and others. Collectively maybe even make us stronger.”

As for the players to come, Tomlin said emphatically the Steelers must add a running back. Ahmad Bradshaw, a former 1,000-yard rusher with the Giants, is reportedly interested in them.

“There might be some (free agents) we didn't think we had a chance at and, all of a sudden, the market changes and it becomes a discussion,” Colbert said.

Tomlin also said:

• The Steelers have plenty of leaders left despite shedding James Farrior, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and Harrison in the last 13 months. He said, “I don't think we're devoid of leadership at all.”

• He expects Jason Worilds, a part-time player to date, to more than adequately replace Harrison. “We'll see what Jason Worilds is capable of doing,” Tomlin said.

Then, he added, laughing, “No pressure.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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