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Tomlin offers thoughts on Steelers

| Monday, March 31, 2008

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Relaxing pool-side at a ritzy resort Sunday morning, with waves from the Atlantic Ocean calmly wading in not more than a fly pattern away, Mike Tomlin didn't seem to have a care in the world.

The second-year coach made clear that he doesn't give a darn about what appears to be one of the Steelers' biggest challenges in 2008: a daunting schedule that includes road games against the Patriots, Jaguars and Titans and home games against the world-champion Giants, Colts and Cowboys.

"Don't ask me about the schedule. I could care less," said Tomlin, who is at The Beakers for the annual NFL owners meetings. "If we want to be the best, we've got to beat them all, anyway. I promise you when we do play that we will show up and be ready to play."

The signing of veteran players during free agency suggests that Tomlin believes the team is closer to the one that blazed to a 9-3 start last season than the one that limped in with a 1-4 finish, including a loss to the Jaguars in an AFC wild-card game.

He apparently sold that vision to center Justin Hartwig, who officially signed with the Steelers last week and will compete with incumbent Sean Mahan for the starting job.

"They're going to be right there in the thick of things, and that's what coach Tomlin stressed to me, is that this is a championship organization and that's their goal every year," Hartwig said last week. "Some teams aren't playing for that every year. That was probably one of the biggest reasons why I am here."

Tomlin gave one of his patented wordy explanations that is essentially a non-answer when asked if he considers the Steelers Super Bowl contenders.

As for what questions the Steelers face going into the 2008 season, Tomlin smiled and said, "I don't know what the questions are. You tell me."

OK, coach, here goes:

How about an offensive line that gave up 47 sacks last season and lost its best player, left guard Alan Faneca, to free agency?

Tomlin said there is some concern about that unit. But, he added, "Overly concerned• No, because I trust that the men that we have are preparing themselves to be better. I like the moves that we've made thus far in the offseason in terms of fortifying that area of our team."

As for adding another wide receiver, especially since the team recently released Cedrick Wilson, Tomlin said the Steelers may well have found one in the draft -- the 2007 draft.

Dallas Baker, a seventh-round pick last year, impressed the coaches as a member of the practice squad.

"He made plays on a daily basis (in practice) that raised some eyebrows," Tomlin said of the 6-3, 206-pound Baker. "Of course, that's not making plays in stadiums, but it's something to be somewhat excited about along with the rest of the young guys."

One question that Tomlin doesn't have is whether the eight-year, $102-million contract that Ben Roethlisberger signed in early March will have an adverse effect on the 26-year-old quarterback.

When asked about questions that had been raised about Roethlisberger's work ethic early in his career, Tomlin all but laughed out loud.

"I don't know where the reputation came from. That reputation was prior to my relationship with him and I say that as bluntly as I can say it," Tomlin said. "He's always coming in with suggestions; whether or not I take them is another thing, but I appreciate that dialogue. I enjoy that dialogue with him because it all indicates that he wants to win by any means. That's what you respect about him the most."

How much the Steelers will win next season remains to be seen.

Tomlin conceded that he does keep track of what other teams in the AFC, and particularly the ones in the Steelers' division, do during the offseason.

The Browns, coming off a strong finish to the 2007 season, have seemingly improved themselves considerably since the free-agent signing period started. Do the moves they have made make them the team to beat in the AFC North going into next season?

"People thought the Ravens were the favorites last year, and I had a tough time subscribing to that," Tomlin said. "I always feel good about the men that I work with. I'll leave the prognosticating to those that do it for a living."

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