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Super Bowl champion Steelers look to avoid 2006-like letdown

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin wasn't coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers when they followed their Super Bowl-winning season of 2005 with a series of mishaps, letdowns and losses. Still, Tomlin is familiar with what can happen when a team tries to live off its title too long.

Witness the 2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who followed their Super Bowl XXXVII victory by going 7-9. Similarly, the Steelers started 2-6 in 2006 -- the year of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's serious motorcycle accident -- and finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs, one season after winning Super Bowl XL.

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"Teams come hard at you," Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said of being the defending Super Bowl champion. "You become a target."

The Steelers will be such a target again this season, and at Saturday's minicamp practice, some of them were talking about what to do about it.

Tomlin can draw from his experiences as an assistant at Tampa Bay, but he said he intends to coach mostly "from the gut" -- responding to each challenge as it arises.

"It is a different time, a different place, a different set of circumstances," Tomlin said. "On a personal note, my approach and mentality in regards to some of the things I can pull from, I'm sure I will."

So will Taylor and Hines Ward, Roethlisberger and Willie Parker, and the other players who were part of both of the Steelers' Super Bowl-winning seasons the past four years.

Last year, Roethlisberger said the June 2006 motorcycle crash that disrupted his season long before it began was a byproduct of him not being careful or conscientious enough after winning the Super Bowl, and it wouldn't happen again.

Parker remembers how it took the 2006 Steelers almost until midseason to remember how they won the season before, so he didn't want to create any distractions this year by holding out with only one season left on his contract.

"It's nothing about the contract. I'm here to work," Parker said. "I'm a Steeler until somebody tells me otherwise. The contract will take care of itself."

The Steelers should have one advantage in avoiding the letdown of '06 -- an easier schedule than they had not only that season but also in 2008, when they went 12-4.

The Steelers will play the AFC West rather than the AFC South and the NFC Central rather than the NFC East. Based on its opponents' 2008 records, Pittsburgh will play one of the NFL's three easiest schedules.

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To Taylor, preventing a repeat of 2006 requires remembering that every team wants to judge itself against the Super Bowl champion, regardless of what its record was the previous season.

"We feel like we're a target regardless, but there's just that extra oomph, teams are going to come at you, and that's just the way it is," Taylor said.

Taylor likes how the Steelers' organization is staying with its business-as-usual approach, with an emphasis on the coming season. Enter the Steelers' practice complex, and there are few signs that this is the home of the Super Bowl championship team.

The Lombardi Trophy earned in February is displayed along with the other five won by the Steelers -- not in a prominent place in the city where the public can view them, but in a quiet corridor near the coaches' offices.

Employees answer the phone with a simple, "Pittsburgh Steelers," with no mention of the recently won title.

"The organization keeps it level and with a tone that keeps distractions to a minimum," Taylor said. "Coach (Tomlin) does a great job of coming in and doing that, and we've got some veteran guys who know what it takes coming off the last Super Bowl. He has experienced Super Bowls, and we have experienced Super Bowls, and that's a good mix."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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