Since winning it all, Steelers' offseason not exactly smooth sailing

PITTSBURGH -- The rings aren't merely gaudy. They're outrageously gaudy.

Packed with 63 diamonds and weighing 3.7 ounces, they're too large and too loud even for big, muscle-bound NFL players to feel comfortable wearing in public.

"I'm probably going to wear it once and then tuck it somewhere tight and put it up for a while," said 6-foot-3, 315-pound Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Willie Colon, of the prize that he and each of his teammates received Tuesday for winning Super Bowl XLIII. "I'm still in awe of it."

Steelers' bling

Four months after beating the Cardinals, the Steelers were finally presented with their championship rings for winning Super Bowl XLIII. Get a closer look at the team's new bling. More ...

"Am I going to wear it?" safety Ryan Clark said. "Doubt it. I don't want anybody to cut my finger off. After I got home (from the ring presentation), some of my neighbors who are three houses down were outside and said, 'Wow, we can see it from here!' It's very fitting of the first team to win six."

That's six Super Bowls, all of which are commemorated by the biggest diamonds in the oval-shaped setting -- three on one side, three on the other.

For the Steelers, receiving the rings was, in many respects, like crossing the finish line of a long and sometimes challenging offseason.

Since hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the middle of Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 1 in Tampa, Fla., the team has enjoyed the highs of being cheered in a parade through downtown Pittsburgh and a chance to meet the President at the White House. It also has experienced some not-so-great moments, such as:

» A media flap created by the decision of outside linebacker and 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison not to be part of the White House visit.

» Harrison's pit bull biting his 2-year-old son at the linebacker's home while Harrison wasn't there. The child suffered injuries that sent him to the hospital, but his father said he has recovered and is doing fine.

» Veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote, a defensive leader, being released.

» Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger giving his coaches and teammates a scare when he came up limping after his knee collided with that of running back Willie Parker in practice last week.

You get a sense that the Steelers are happy to see the offseason coming to an end, which will be the case after Thursday's practice.

The timing of the ring presentation couldn't have been more perfect.

"Yeah, we knew we were champs, but now we know we're last year's champs," Clark said. "Now you know it's time to start trying to defend. Now you know it's time to get prepared to play ( the 2009 regular-season opener against) the Tennessee Titans, who kicked our butt last year and probably think they should have the rings. It's been an awesome ride, but now it's time to really get into it. It's time to play football."

And time to put the offseason to bed.

Harrison still doesn't understand what all the fuss was over his decision to skip the trip to the White House. He simply decided to remain consistent -- he didn't attend the function after the Steelers' victory in Super Bowl XL, when he was a little-known special-teams player and George W. Bush was in office. He didn't see the point in attending the second time as the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year for a chance to meet Barack Obama.

"I didn't go last time, I (wasn't) going this time," Harrison said. "(Reporters said), 'Well, James, you're in a different position this time.' I said, 'Well, y'all think differently of me, (but) I'm not changing the way I feel about it.' I did not want to go. It has nothing to do with Republican, Democrat, none of that. Some people really want to meet the President. I don't."

Steelers' offseason moves

Here are the additions to the Steelers' roster since they beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII:

Free agents:
K Piotr Czech (from Ravens)

WR Jayson Foster (from Broncos)

P Dirk Johnson (from Redskins)

WR Shaun McDonald (from Lions)

CB Keiwan Ratliff (from Colts)

Trade:
None

Harrison's teammates respected his decision not to attend the ceremony. As far as they're concerned, the media made it a much bigger issue than it ever was in the locker room.

Clark described the incident involving Harrison's son as "sad" and said that he and others on the team "prayed for him" and were relieved by the happy outcome.

The release of Foote wasn't easy for many veteran defenders to swallow. Although they're confident in the ability of third-year man Lawrence Timmons to take his place as a starter at inside linebacker, they expect to miss Foote's leadership.

"It's going to be hard to adjust because he's Foote," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "From the standpoint of on the field, I think Timmons can get it done. But we're going to miss (Foote) more in the locker room more than anything else."

Roethlisberger's knee injury provided a brief scare. But it wasn't long before teammates saw that he was going to be fine -- well enough, in fact, to join former NBA great Michael Jordan and singer Justin Timberlake at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y., on Friday for the 18-hole Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge, which NBC will tape to air on June 21 as a 90-minute special before the final round of the 109th U.S. Open.

Even one of the prouder moments of the Steelers' offseason had an awkward side to it. When it was announced that club owner Dan Rooney, a Steelers fixture since their inception, was President Obama's choice to become U.S. ambassador to Ireland, there was a realization that he would no longer be a constant presence at the team's facility during the week or at the stadium on gameday. But they recognize that he has been bestowed a great honor and had no choice but to accept it.

"That's all water under the bridge," Colon said of bumps in the offseason. "That doesn't get in the way of what we've got to get ready for and what we're going to try to do. We've got the team to (win a seventh Super Bowl). We've got the guys that are capable of getting the job done, so why not get one more?"

That was certainly what the Steelers had in mind after winning Super Bowl XL as well. But then they proceeded to have a dreadful offseason, the lowlight of which was a motorcycle accident resulting in serious injuries to Roethlisberger. After that, Big Ben and the Steelers were never quite the same, stumbling to a 2-6 start and finishing 8-8 to miss the playoffs.

Looking back, some of the players who were on the team then never quite felt they were psychologically prepared to handle the challenges of defending a championship.

"That was a bad thing for Ben to get into the accident, but even if you take that away, I just don't feel like we came in with the same mindset that we had the previous year (after losing the 2004 AFC title game to New England)," Harrison said. "You're a little hungrier when you get kicked out of the playoffs and you're just a step or two shy of getting to that goal."

But even with some of the issues that he and his teammates have encountered this offseason, Harrison is convinced the Steelers are well-equipped to repeat as Super Bowl champs.

"I feel like we're in a whole lot better frame of mind than we were the previous time we won," he said. "We've got guys here (participating in offseason workouts). If a guy misses, there's a reason. It's just not because he didn't want to come. I feel like the whole team is more focused this time around."

Said Colon: "I think the key thing is you've got to approach camp extremely humble and extremely hungry, understanding that you do have a bull's-eye on your back and that what you did last year you just can't do this year. Teams are going to get better, you've got to be able to finish, you've got to be able to step your game up a lot."

Nowhere is that required more than on the Steelers' offensive line, which was the weak link of the team's Super Bowl and wasn't significantly upgraded. Pittsburgh's offensive linemen continue to struggle to live down the fact that too often in 2008, they were unable to close out games in the final minute or two and had to rely on the NFL's top-ranked defense to do so.

The Steelers are pinning most of their hopes for success up front on continuity. They are returning all of their starters from the end of last season -- Colon and Max Starks at tackle, Chris Kemoeatu and Darnell Stapleton at guard and Justin Hartwig at center.

"We know each other, we talk way more efficiently, we do everything a lot better than how we did last year," Colon said. "Now, it's just an understanding of just getting it done and polishing up our technique and craft.

"One, we've got to protect. If we keep Seven (Roethlisberger) upright, we know we're going to have a chance to win. You give him time to do what he needs to do, we're going to be fine. Second, we've got to be a way more dominant force in the run game. We weren't a good short-yardage team. We weren't a good goal-line team. If we handle those aspects of our game and keep Seven upright, we're going to have a lot of success."

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