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Steelers veterans hope less contact equals longer careers

LATROBE, Pa. -- James Harrison couldn't help but smile. Yes, smile.

The outspoken Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker who never met a fight he didn't like to pick has at last found something he and NFL executives agree on: The new guidelines limiting the amount of contact during the preseason are good for the game, not to mention 33-year-old All-Pros coming off back surgery.

"I'll say it's lovely," Harrison said. "It's lovely right now."

Dreaded Organized Team Activities during the spring and early summer? Tuesday thru Thursday only, thanks.

Two-a-days during training camp? So yesterday.

The proposed collective bargaining agreement between the league and players significantly reduces the amount of contact during the offseason and preseason, a shift in policy that was a major victory for the players during their negotiations with the league, and one that could benefit one of the NFL's best -- and oldest -- defenses.

Harrison is one of eight Steelers defensive starters who will be at least 30 this season, a list that includes safety Troy Polamalu (30), defensive linemen Brett Keisel (32) and Casey Hampton (33), and linebacker James Farrior (36).

Safety Ryan Clark joked when camp opened he only had three gray hairs on his head when the NFL lockout began, a number that jumped to 14 during the work stoppage.

Clark, 31, said the grayness was caused by stress while serving as the team's player representative during the tense negotiations. Maybe, or maybe he's just trying to fit in.

Polamalu's iconic mane is flecked with streaks of silver. There's gray stubble on Harrison's face, and Farrior's hairline beat a hasty retreat long ago.

The unit led the league in points allowed last season but looked a half-step slow in a loss to the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. Considering their respective age, it was thought the window of opportunity for the current group was closing.

Thanks to the new rules, maybe not.

While Harrison allows he's going to ease up on the hitting during camp as he recovers from a second procedure on his back, he knows his teammates will be fresher by simple math. Less hitting equals fewer chances at injury.

"You're not out here banging twice a day," Harrison said. "You can only bang so often."

The Steelers have long cut down on the amount of full-contact practices during the regular season as the perennial playoff contenders try to stay fresh for the postseason.

Coach Mike Tomlin, however, has tried to make up the difference during camp. His first one with the team in 2007 was among the most brutal in team history.

He's backed off a bit in recent summers, and though Tomlin extended camp's first full practice an additional 15 minutes on Sunday there was only one brief drill where players went at each other full-bore.

Consider it the NFL equivalent of a "spa day." The mood is so energetic Hampton can see players extending their careers well into their late-30s now that the drudgery of two-a-days is gone.

"I think guys are going to play 15 years easy now," Hampton said. "I definitely feel that way because of the way practices and things are set up ... it's even better now. I couldn't even imagine now coming in under this system and playing this long, I could only imagine how much better my body would feel."

Polamalu's first thought when he heard about the revamped offseason schedule was the chance to spend more time with his family. He's not complaining about the significant cut in OTAs either.

"Football is a physical sport no matter what, and I've been around plenty of teammates who have been injured and lost full seasons in (mini) camp so the risk is always out there," he said. "Eliminating the time out there will help."

Even with the kindler, gentler camp schedule, Polamalu will ease himself back in as he tests the stability of the Achilles tendon he injured in December.

So will several other older players as the defending AFC champions try to erase the sting of a rare Super Bowl loss. Though there's a sense of urgency, it's not quite as pronounced anymore.

The team is attempting to keep its defensive core intact, a prospect that seems more doable from a health standpoint even if the economics could one day stand in the way.

A transition in leadership could begin soon if the team is able to re-sign 20-something linebackers LaMarr Woodley -- who had the franchise tag placed on him -- and Lawrence Timmons. The defensive line has new blood in rookie first-round pick Cameron Heyward and third-year player Ziggy Hood, who had a breakout season in 2010.

The Steelers also would like to keep Polamalu, whose contract expires at the end of the year.

How much longer can the group stay together? Nobody is certain, but the window that appeared to be closing quickly in February suddenly looks a little more ajar in August.

"We want to keep this Super Bowl defense together and have another shot at it," Woodley said. "At some time, everybody has to go and the new wave has to come in."

Just, the Steelers hope, not quite yet.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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