Tuesday, February 3, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. | Whether it’s at a spring minicamp or when the Pittsburgh Steelers convene for the start of the 2009 season this summer, coach Mike Tomlin already knows how he will handle the attention that comes with being Super Bowl champions. He also already knows which two words he won’t bring up.

Repeat and defend.

The Steelers won their NFL-best sixth Super Bowl in thrilling fashion Sunday night, defeating the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 when Santonio Holmes corralled Ben Roethlisberger’s bullet to the back right corner of the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown with 35 seconds remaining.

And without an unrestricted free agent who will impact their salary cap structure and the right blend of youth, experience and leadership, the Steelers could be the choice of some to repeat as champions for the third time in franchise history.

“For me, the thing I’m going to tell the football team is that we’re not attempting to repeat,” Tomlin said Monday morning. “That group of men who were in that locker room - that’s gone forever. We’ll have a new 53-man [roster next season]. … You won’t hear me saying words like ‘repeat’ or ‘defending’ because it will be brand new.”

A brand new season with brand new challenges, yes, but the Steelers will be anything but brand new in their approach. They will ride Roethlisberger’s playmaking ability and lean on the league’s top-ranked defense.

The Steelers have 13 unrestricted free agents but only four - left tackle Max Starks, left guard Chris Kemoeatu, cornerback Bryant McFadden and punter Mitch Berger - started in the Super Bowl. Backup quarterback Byron Leftwich is also available.

“Nothing stays the same in this game,” Tomlin said. “A lot of the faces will be the same, but a few will come and go, and of those who will remain, roles will change. Some will ascend. Some will descend. That’s the nature of today’s NFL. Repeating and defending a Super Bowl championship is a misnomer.

“When I walk down the hallway [at the team complex] and see the Steelers of the ‘70s, it’s the same people playing the same positions in those photos. That’s not the reality of today’s NFL.”

One of those players whose role could increase is Holmes, the third-year receiver who was the Super Bowl MVP after catching nine passes for 131 yards.

Holmes’ emergence in the playoffs gives Roethlisberger another option when he’s scrambling to keep plays alive.

Following three regular seasons of at least 49 catches for 821 yards, Holmes led Pittsburgh in the playoffs with 13 receptions for 226 yards and two touchdowns.

Holmes, who last week admitted selling drugs as a Florida teenager, was suspended by Tomlin for a game against the New York Giants during the regular season after being charged with marijuana possession.

“The next day I came into work after that happened, and I sat down for a meeting with Coach Tomlin, and he told me he would handle the situation accordingly,” Holmes said after accepting the MVP trophy from commissioner Roger Goodell. “At first, I didn’t want to hear that from my head coach. I was hoping he trusted my word and nothing went wrong. But I see he put me in a better situation by handling things first hand and getting the distraction away from the team and allowing me to come back to the team the following week ready to go.”

Said Tomlin: “When you work the way we work with these players, you’re a life coach in a lot of ways. You wear many hats in this business, and I embrace that as much as I do the X’s and O’s. I might get more enjoyment out of watching people grow than I do preparing and winning football games. It’s a beautiful thing, and I believe it’s what we’re all called to do.”

In the regular season, Holmes didn’t meet expectations that he would overtake veteran Hines Ward and be the Steelers’ top receiver. But with Ward limited because of a knee injury, Holmes played like a No. 1 receiver against Arizona.

During the winning drive, Holmes put Pittsburgh deep in Arizona territory with a 40-yard catch-and-run with 49 seconds left. Roethlisberger again looked for Holmes, but he couldn’t catch the pass in the left corner of the end zone.

“It was a play I should have made,” he said. “Ben put the ball where only I could catch it. I really took my eyes off it, thinking to get my feet down before getting my hands on the ball.”

Roethlisberger went to Holmes a third time, and despite being surrounded by three defenders, the wideout made the catch.

“It can definitely be thought of as redemption,” Holmes said. “Coming back and Ben having the faith in me, I promised myself this time I wouldn’t lift those feet off the ground.”

It was one of the clutch catches in the game’s 43-year history and culminated a final 11-plus minutes that included a combined 295 yards offense and 23 points.

“Surreal in a way,” Tomlin said. “Being a lifelong fan of the game and the Super Bowl, it’s really humbling to consider what happened to us last night.”

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