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01-14-2011, 06:52 AM

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Steelers' title window may be closing

By John Harris
Friday, January 14, 2011

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin might as well have distributed AARP applications when, in attempting to motivate his veterans during a short week leading to the Carolina Panthers game, he suggested they required more turnaround time than their younger counterparts.

"Physically they're capable of bouncing back faster," Tomlin said of the Panthers, "so we've got to prepare extremely smart and put our veteran players in the best position."

His ploy worked the Steelers rolled to a 27-3 victory. But there might have been some truth in Tomlin's take.

Eight starters six on defense, two on offense are age 30 or older. The window of opportunity for the core of this Steelers team to win its third Super Bowl since the 2005 season is starting to close.

Couple that with a looming lockout next season, and AFC divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday at Heinz Field takes on heightened importance.

"Sometimes it does feel like a generation apart,'' defensive end Aaron Smith, 34, who has been sidelined with a triceps injury since October, said of his younger teammates. "But when it comes down to it, it's still football. We still value the same things, and that's winning games. We try and influence and help these guys with our work ethic to get better as a team.''

Many of the parts from this generation of Super Steelers remains intact: Smith, Hines Ward, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, James Farrior and Ike Taylor, to name a few. Of that group, only Roethlisberger (28) and Polamalu (29) are younger than 30. Polamalu turns 30 in April.

And they're still more than productive.

Farrior, the defensive captain and at 36 one of the team's oldest players, finished second in tackles and completed his fifth consecutive season without missing a game. Led by Farrior, the defense was the NFL's top-ranked unit against the run and finished second in total defense.

But some players' roles are changing.

Smith has been plagued by injuries the past two seasons and spent more time on the sideline 11 games last season and 10 this season than on the field.

Ward is relinquishing his role as the team's top receiver to second-year wideout Mike Wallace.

Receiver Antwaan Randle El, who signed with the Steelers in the offseason to be the team's No. 3 receiver and make another Super Bowl run, has been supplanted by rookie Emmanuel Sanders.

"I like the future of this team and where it's going,'' said Ward, 34, the Steelers' career leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. "We've still got some productive veteran guys, but we have some explosive younger guys.''

It's those younger guys whom the veterans are relying upon to help carry the load and the team into the AFC championship game.

Take second-year wideout Mike Wallace. He led the team in catches, receiving yards and touchdown catches this season.

He also has caught onto the example set by the veterans who have won Super Bowls.

"Our veterans are the ones who lead the way,'' Wallace said. "They have the road map. They have the blueprint. They've already been there. If we learn from these guys who have been there and handle ourselves properly, I think when they're gone we're going to step into those roles.''

John Harris can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.