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Super Bowl behind them, Steelers begin shifting attention to 2006

| Monday, May 15, 2006

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Steelers gather Saturday for the first time since they were celebrating their Super Bowl championship three months ago, beginning a weekend minicamp that segues into three weeks of spring workouts.

If the words "NFL champions" are spoken at any time, they probably won't be coming from coach Bill Cowher.

Despite losing few players by Super Bowl standards -- three starters, plus motivational leader Jerome Bettis -- Cowher said the Steelers probably won't be favored to win the AFC title when the season starts in September.

As a result, Cowher intends to quickly move on after finally winning the Super Bowl title that eluded him for 13 seasons as an NFL coach and the Steelers for 25 years since they won four Lombardi Trophies in six seasons from 1974-79.

One reason: He doesn't want the Steelers to lose their underdog, hey-let's-show-them mentality that drove them to eight consecutive victories, including four away from Pittsburgh during the postseason.

"I've said I don't think we were the best team in the AFC last year or even close to (being the best team in) the NFL," Cowher said. "I think we played our best football at the right time and we played with a level of desperation that allowed us to play with anybody. We played smart, we made plays when we had to make them and we never stopped believing. But I don't think we were the best team. We have to recapture that -- and we lost some key players."

The Steelers managed to replace those lost players without spending a bundle of money and by signing only one player from another team, former Redskins safety Ryan Clark to replace Chris Hope.

First-round draft choice Santonio Holmes or backup Cedrick Wilson most likely will replace wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, who signed a big-money deal with the Redskins. Former starting defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen was replaced from within by Brett Keisel, who made a number of big plays during the playoffs before signing a new contract. Bettis' late-game role likely will be filled by Duce Staley.

The great unknown facing the Steelers is whether they can find a locker-room leader to match Bettis, the No. 5 rusher in NFL history.

"We have some voids to fill," Cowher said. "You lose guys like Antwaan, Jerome and Kimo, those three guys had a presence in the locker room. Somehow we're going to have to fill those voids. In their own way, with their own personalities, they were leaders."

There will be one final Super Bowl celebration June 2, when the Steelers visit the White House and receive their Super Bowl rings. By then, Cowher will have long since shifted all attention to 2006.

Holmes and the other rookies will attend the minicamp, but the former Ohio State star can't stay around for the coaching sessions that follow because his college class won't yet have graduated.

During the offseason, Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward created the only potential distraction to date by saying he doesn't speak much with Cowher. However, that conflicts with what Ward said last season, when he credited a long talk with Cowher for persuading him to end his two-week holdout and report to training camp.

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