Steelers WRs expect to have productive season
The Steelers conjure up many images -- an unyielding defense befitting a place called the "Steel City," a punishing ground game, Terrible Towel-waving fans -- but not game-breaking wide receivers.
That is the opinion of none other than Hines Ward
"You look back throughout history," the 10-year veteran said last week. "What receiver do you know other than (Lynn) Swann and (John) Stallworth that anybody outside of this organization really cared about?"
True, the Weegie Thompson Fan Club disbanded long ago. This year's wide receivers will have to make themselves known outside of the organization if the Steelers are to have a successful season, which isn't a repeat of last year's disappointing 8-8 campaign.
The regular season starts today when the Steelers visit Cleveland, and there are two schools of thought about the team's wideouts.
They are too small, too callow and in the case of Ward, the four-time Pro Bowler who is poised to break Stallworth's team records for career receiving yards and touchdown receptions, maybe even a little too old at the lead spot.
Ward is still one of the better wideouts in the game, Santonio Holmes is a star waiting in the wings, Cedrick Wilson is perfectly fine for a No. 3 receiver and Nate Washington just needs to become more consistent to give the Steelers another big-play threat.
Which scenario comes closer to playing out this season could go a long way toward determining whether the Steelers return to the playoffs.
"I know what they can do and how special they are," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
Such a statement might cause a few eye rolls considering Roethlisberger needs those wideouts to go over the middle and stretch out for tough catches.
But Roethlisberger has been effusive in his praise of the wide receivers since it became clear the Steelers were going to spread the field more this season. Rather than expose the Steelers' wideouts, Roethlisberger has remained steadfast in his belief that the new offense will showcase them.
"They might surprise some people outside this locker room," he said, "but they won't surprise me."
Ward, who was recently voted a captain by his teammates, is the unquestioned leader of the group.
He plays with attitude, an edge and the kind of toughness that personifies the Steelers. Ward, 31, is poised to eclipse 1,000 yards in receiving after just missing the mark last year (he had 975 yards on 74 catches).
"I know Santonio and Wilson have really good speed, which you have to be concerned about," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said, "but Hines Ward totally can do it all."
Opposing coaches might be saying the same thing about Holmes soon enough.
He overcame a slow start to his rookie season in 2006 to catch 49 passes for 824 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Holmes, the Steelers' first-round pick in 2006, averaged 16.8 yards a catch last season and figures to only get better. As the former Ohio State star said, the more comfortable he has become at this level, the more the game has slowed down for him.
"When you know what's going on, you have no worries, you're getting out there free-minded just doing your job," said Holmes, who will start opposite Ward this season.
The main job for Washington this season is cut down on the drops.
He led the Steelers in yards per catch (17.8) last season, but he has been maddening at times because of his inability to consistently catch the ball.
He is only in his third season, while Holmes and Willie Reid, the team's fifth wide receiver, are in their second season.
If experience is a concern, there is also a question mark about their size - or specifically their lack of a tall, rangy wideout that would make for an attractive target for Roethlisberger when the Steelers are near their opponents' end zone.
"You look the past four years and I'm probably one of the top four guys in the red zone, and I'm not 6-5 or whatever. It's blown out of proportion," said the 6-foot Ward, who has 58 career touchdown receptions. "You throw it up, I like our chances with the receivers we've got."
So does Roethlisberger.
"There are lot guys talking about Hines being over the hill and that other guys are too young," Roethlisberger said. "You know what, that's fine. We'll just shut up and play."
Wide receivers by the numbers
1 - NFL games in which Willie Reid, the Steelers, No. 5 receiver, has played.
3 - Total catches Nate Washington had in the Steelers' final three games last season.
6 - Touchdown receptions Hines Ward needs to break John Stallworth's team record for career touchdown catches.
26.2 - Average age of Steelers' wide receivers.
37 - Receptions by Cedrick Wilson last season, the second-highest total of his career.
320 - Receiving yards Santonio Holmes had in the Steelers' final four games in 2006.