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Winds of change howl through Pittsburgh this winter

When the Steelers began their 2011 season with a resounding thud against the Ravens, you could feel the rumble of those who had jumped off the Black and Gold bandwagon.

NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp was among the panicked masses, proclaiming the Steelers were three things: "Old, slow, and it's over."

This was the same Steelers team that played in the Super Bowl just seven months earlier, but now they were too ancient to compete?

It all seemed a bit premature, and the 12 regular-season wins that followed seemed to confirm it. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, wretched coverage on a divine Tim Tebow pass ensured the vindication was short-lived.

The Steelers were a good team, but a lethal combination of age and financial reality no longer could be ignored. It was time for the delicate process to begin: altering the identity of a team without completely changing it.

We've watched it unfold in the past two weeks. Hines Ward and his 1,000 career catches were sent packing. Defensive end Aaron Smith, who came to represent the guts of Pittsburgh's defense for 14 seasons, likely had his career ended by his release. Chris Kemoeatu, a guard who protected Ben Roethlisberger in two Super Bowls, also was deemed expendable.

It didn't end there. Linebacker James Farrior, the team's defensive captain the past eight seasons, has been released, according to his agent, Ralph Cindrich. And more could come.

While several familiar faces leave, the Steelers are doing what they can to retain others. Roethlisberger restructured his deal to create salary-cap space. Offensive tackle Willie Colon and linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons did the same. The team is attempting to retain its youngest and most dynamic asset, wide receiver Mike Wallace, as well as Jerricho Cotchery, the reliable former Jet who gobbled up Ward's snaps last season.

Pittsburgh will fill in the gaps with younger, more cost-efficient players through the draft and free agency. By September, the Steelers will look in some ways very similar to the unit you last saw. But they won't be.

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