Vets keeping younger Steelers focused

PITTSBURGH -- Steelers 13-year veteran Hines Ward had a stern message for his younger teammates leading up to the AFC Championship Game.

Upon entering the locker room, there was a hand-written note by Ward that bluntly read, "Don't play with my money."

Each Steeler can earn an additional $142,000 for winning the Super Bowl, but Ward's memo was more about principle than actual dollars. Ward wanted to make sure the younger players in Pittsburgh's locker room understood a chance to win a championship doesn't happen often. Preparation and focus are key, and those are things inexperienced players can lose sight of while having success.

Ward's words clearly resonated, as Pittsburgh used a team-wide effort to beat the New York Jets 24-19 to advance to Super Bowl XLV.

"We all have to put our hands in the pile to be held accountable -- young and veteran guys," Ward said. "So you will hear a lot of veterans tell the young guys 'Don't play with my money.' But I think our young guys have risen to the occasion and made plays."

Thanks to Pittsburgh's strong leadership, led by Ward, linebacker James Farrior, safety Troy Polamalu and others, the Steelers' inexperienced players are performing like veterans.

Pittsburgh is getting key contributions during this Super Bowl run from rookie receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey and second-year players Mike Wallace and Ziggy Hood.

You also can add third-year tailback Rashard Mendenhall to the list. He had a season-ending shoulder injury early in 2008 and is contributing in his first career playoffs. Mendenhall punished the Jets' defense with 121 yards rushing and a touchdown on 27 carries.

Most players in Pittsburgh's locker room have at least one Super Bowl ring, from the 2008 season. Those who have been with the Steelers for the past six seasons have two.

But there are a select few who haven't won anything with Pittsburgh (14-4), and most of those players are from the team's past two draft classes. The Steelers have a culture this time of year where veterans remind and jab at the younger players about not owning any championship jewelry.

This is also the veterans' subtle way of keeping younger Steelers motivated. Based on their playoff run, it's working.

"We're really hungry," Wallace said. "I'm pretty sure the other guys will bring their rings out before we go to Dallas. So we're extremely jealous -- but jealous in a good way, not in a bad way. We just want us some [rings]."

"They kind of throw it out that they experienced it [a Super Bowl] and we haven't," Sanders said.

This is Pittsburgh's eighth trip to the Super Bowl, and the Steelers are an astounding 6-1 in the previous seven title games. Pittsburgh (six) leads the Dallas Cowboys (five) for the most Super Bowl titles and has a chance to extend the lead Feb. 6 at Cowboys Stadium.

But it's very important for the Steelers to continue to get key contributions from their younger players against the Packers (13-6). The two-week break and enormous hype leading up to the Super Bowl can be just as much a mental test for teams as it is physical.

Ward, who is 2-0 in Super Bowls, has been through the process before and will remain in the ear of younger Steelers who haven't gone through this unique experience.

"It's their first time," Ward said. "I am pretty sure that the guys will have lots of anxiety, can't sleep, putting too much effort into it. We just have to slow the tempo down and treat it like any other practice."