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The Last Tango In Pittsburgh

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I wonder if [intlink id=”34″ type=”category”]Hines Ward[/intlink] introduced Kym Johnson to the many wonderful uses of butter…

*Ahem* In my recap of the [intlink id=”21″ type=”category”]Pittsburgh Steelers[/intlink] uninspiring victory over the Indianapolis Colts, I made a comment about [intlink id=”81″ type=”category”]Antonio Brown[/intlink] being the team’s second best receiver. Since nothing can be done about the secondary or offensive line (at least until Kevin Colbert decides to pick up the phone and call either Flozell Adams or Max Starks), I figured that was an idea worth revisiting. And it does tie in to what we saw on Sunday. Trust me, oh ye of little faith.

Obviously the implication of my statement is perennial All-Pro and future Hall of Famer Hines Ward is no longer one of the team’s top two wide outs. Last season, he had the fewest catches and the fewest yards since 2000 (his first year as a starter). Thus far in 2011, he’s on track to post even lower totals. As we near the quarter mark of the season, Hines has caught only 12 balls for a minuscule 117 yards. Project that out and you’re looking at your #2 receiver catching about 45 passes for about 500 yards.

That’s simply not good enough. Especially when the team has better options available. As a rookie, Emmanuel Sanders caught 28 passes for 376 yards in very limited playing time. Over a 16 game season, those numbers project to be roughly the same as what Hines put up. And that’s a conservative estimate because more playing time would naturally mean more opportunities to make plays. Then we have Antonio Brown. AB barely played last year but was the star of the preseason and has seemingly carried that over to the regular season. He’s already caught 10 balls this year, averaging a whopping 15 yards per reception as compared to Hines’ 9.8. Sure he’s kind of an obnoxious dick with the posing and chest-thumping every time he catches a pass but you can’t deny the kid’s talent. Again, imagine what he might do if he were elevated to the starting line-up and given 10-15 additional plays.

Now, why do I feel this is important to the Steelers? The most exciting play of our young season was [intlink id=”14″ type=”category”]Ben Roethlisberger[/intlink]’s 81 yard touchdown bomb to emerging superstar [intlink id=”82″ type=”category”]Mike Wallace[/intlink]. The Flash caught three balls in the first quarter for 129 yards. He only made two more catches for 15 yards the rest of the game. Did Ben suddenly forget about him?  Of course not. I guarantee after running wild early, the Colts game-planned to remove him from the equation.

When that happens, it’s incumbent for the off-receiver to make them pay.  But Hines only caught three passes for 17 yards. As punishments go, that’s about as severe as rubbing your fingers together and crying, “Shame! Shame!” If Wallace is taking the lid off the top of the coverage, there should be plenty of room for Hines to roam free underneath.  However, he obviously wasn’t getting free because then Ben would’ve thrown to him more often.

Ben holds on to the football tighter than Gollum holds on to his precioussss ring but nobody can seriously argue he wants to be pounded by big smelly 300 pound defensive ends. If Hines were jitterbugging footloose and fancy free, Ben would dump it off to him. The fact that he’s not speaks volumes about what Ben is seeing and what Hines is doing. The ability to create separation is what distinguishes a good NFL receiver from a Matt Millen draft pick. Hines was never the fastest player on the field but his nifty footwork and precise route-running enabled him to get open. If that’s left him, well, then maybe Warren Sapp’s twelve year old daughter really can cover him.

This whole situation reminds me Fast Willie Parker.  FWP wasn’t a big guy but he had good instincts and blazing speed. After a horrific leg injury and age conspired to sap him of even a portion of that speed, he went from a featured back to completely useless seemingly overnight. He completed the freefall from 1,300 yard rusher to becoming a proud member of the UFL’s Virginia Tuskers in two short years. Time is a cruel mistress and when she strikes she often does so severely and without warning.

I don’t want to remember Hines as the same sad player FWP became during the end of his run in the Black and Gold. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not advocating Hines retire, although if he doesn’t accept a Jerome Bettis-style league minimum deal next season I’m not sure the team can justify bringing him back at his current salary. What I am saying is perhaps it’s time for Hines to fill a role similar to what Antwaan Randle-El did last season; a slot receiver who is Ben’s short yardage safety valve in three and four WR sets. Let AB take his spot opposite the Flash and let’s see if maybe Young Money can breathe some life into a moribund passing attack.

After all, Hines has said to all who will listen that at this point in his career all he cares about is winning.  Not stats, not personal glory, only the W’s. Perhaps it’s time for him to put those words into action. Given the level of honor and integrity which Hines has displayed during his time in Pittsburgh, I have no doubt he would be willing to do what’s in the best interests of the team. The only question is will Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians?