No more celebrating as Steelers start preparing for 2009

PITTSBURGH -- The catch was made, the confetti dropped, the trophy presented, the Super Bowl won. The celebratory parade drew hundreds of thousands, and the TV show appearances and endorsements are only beginning.

It's been less than a week since Santonio Holmes' dramatic touchdown reception lifted the Pittsburgh Steelers to their second Super Bowl victory in four seasons and the sixth in franchise history.

But already, they're just another team looking to win next season.

With free agency starting in three weeks and numerous personnel decisions facing the Steelers, their Super Bowl run is making them play catch-up in one area: offseason preparations.

"I've got to have some sense of that, understand that we're a month behind in getting ready for '09," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We've got to be thoughtful in how we prepare our football team."

To director of football operations Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' record isn't 15-4, it's 0-0. So much for enjoying the moment.

"Everybody here works toward a common goal, and that's winning," Colbert said.

What complicates matters is that winning -- the Steelers are 63-26 the past five seasons, counting the playoffs -- increases what players are worth, stretches the salary cap and forces an overhauling of positions.

"There will be a new 53-man roster," Tomlin said. "A lot of the faces will be the same, but nothing stays the same in this game."

The Steelers could have as many as 12 unrestricted free agents on Feb. 27, including offensive linemen Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Marvel Smith and Trai Essex, punter Mitch Berger, quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich, linebacker/special teams ace Keyaron Fox, cornerback Bryant McFadden and wide receiver Nate Washington.

They may have to choose between Smith, who has missed big chunks of the last two seasons with back problems, and Starks, the only offensive lineman to start both of their last two Super Bowls. Leftwich wants a chance to start and is expected to leave, and Batch -- injured all season -- is amenable to returning as a backup.

McFadden figures to command more money elsewhere than the Steelers can afford to pay him, especially with William Gay waiting to play.

The Steelers would like to bring back Fox, their second-leading tackler on special teams, but Berger will be replaced by Daniel Sepulevda, who sat out this past season with a knee injury.

The Steelers traditionally do a good job of identifying which players with one season left on their contracts should be re-signed. The most prominent player expected to get a new deal is All-Pro linebacker James Harrison, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl star.

Harrison has been one of the NFL's biggest bargains after signing a $5.5 million, four-year deal in 2006 before becoming a starter. He made $1.1 million as a Pro Bowl player in 2007 and $1.2 million this past season, when he set a club record with 16 sacks.

Other key players with one season left on their deals are wide receiver Hines Ward, tight end Heath Miller, defensive end Brett Keisel, safety Ryan Clark, kicker Jeff Reed, nose tackle Casey Hampton, linebacker Larry Foote and cornerback Deshea Townsend.

Defensive end is likely to be a Steelers priority in the next two years; Aaron Smith will be 33 next season, Keisel will be 31 and backup Travis Kirschke will be 35, so this may be a position targeted in the draft.

Foote, due to make more than $2.8 million next season, could be cut, as linebacker Joey Porter was two years ago when Harrison was ready to play. The Steelers don't want to keep 2007 first-round pick Lawrence Timmons on the bench, and letting Foote go would create more salary cap room.

The Steelers could have at least five restricted free agents, including right tackle Willie Colon, the most likely to be offered a new contract. Others include cornerback Anthony Madison, a key special teams player; safety Anthony Smith, linebacker Arnold Harrison and tight end Sean McHugh.

Once free agency and the draft are over, Tomlin said, "We're going to roll up our sleeves and start with a new group of men -- hopefully a lot of them will still be the same -- and go about our business of trying to compete in '09."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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