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Receiver wards off defeat

Rob Amen
| Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2001

PITTSBURGH: He sealed his first career 100-yard receiving game with perhaps his finest catch of the afternoon.

Midway through the fourth quarter Sunday with the Steelers holding a 13-7 lead deep in their own territory, Hines Ward saved quarterback Kordell Stewart, and possibly the game for the Steelers.

Stewart's pass to Ward was a little off target, and Jacksonville cornerback Fernando Bryant made a break on the ball. Ward and Bryant arrived at the ball at the same time, but Bryant appeared to have his hands on it.

That is, until Ward wrested it away for a 20-yard gain. It was his final reception of the game. He finished with nine catches for 112 yards and a touchdown. And he was a major reason why the Steelers held on to defeat the Jaguars, 20-7, Sunday at Heinz Field.

On an offense predicated on running the ball first and passing whenever necessary, Ward has become a real threat at wide receiver. It's the first time the Steelers have had such a weapon since Yancey Thigpen in 1997.

And offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey isn't afraid to use him.

"He's my MVP," said running back Jerome Bettis, considered by many to hold that distinction for the Steelers with 918 yards rushing. "If I had a vote, I would vote for Hines Ward any day of the week. He's the guy - not only run but pass, without the ball - he's been there. That's critical."

It has been for the Steelers, who sit 7-2 - tied with Oakland for the AFC's best record - and are 1.5 games ahead of Baltimore in the Central Division.

Need a big catch• Ward has delivered. Need a block downfield• Ward's been the man.

That's why Steelers coach Bill Cowher called it "poetic justice" that Ward scored on a 28-yard screen pass thanks in large part to a crushing block by receiver Troy Edwards.

Ward has been the player making that block for Bettis or Amos Zereoue or any other Steeler this season. Sunday, Edwards returned the favor.

"It was a double screen," Ward said. "We faked it to Amos and came back to my side. When I caught it, I saw those two guys, Troy and Bobby (Shaw) running back (to block).

"Troy knocked his head off."

With his nine catches Sunday, Ward has 59 for the season. He caught 48 last season. His career high is 61, set in 1999.

The Steelers record is 85, set by Thigpen in 1995. Ward is on pace to finish the season with 105.

Remarkably, his 112 yards Sunday marked the first time in his four-year career that Ward surpassed 100 yards receiving.

"Finally," Ward said. "It's all about opportunities, getting your chance and taking your shot downfield."

He has received his opportunities, and he's made them count, to the extent that much of what he does is often taken for granted.

"He'll be good week in and week out," Cowher said. "He's a very good football player, and that's not just in the catches. He does the little things, too."

The little things came at key moments Sunday. They added up to one career afternoon for Ward.

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