Wednesday, October 05, 2005
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Plaxico Burress benefited by leaving the Steelers, and it probably helped Hines Ward, too.
They never said as much, but there's little chance the Steelers would have paid both wide receivers big money to stay. They chose to let Burress flee in free agency, and Ward collected the largest signing bonus in team history last month, $9 million as part of a new five-year contract worth $27.5 million.
Ward also scored on the field, specifically four touchdowns in three games. That matches his total from last season and he points to the absence of the 6-51/2 Burress as a big part of it.
"This year, me going out there and not having Plaxico opposite me, my role has kind of changed in the red zone," Ward said. "Where last year everyone wants to just throw it up to Plax and I was kind of like the odd man out.
"I was still in my progressions, but that's what all the fans and the media said: 'You'd be stupid not to use [Burress] to your advantage, he's 6-6, throw it up and let the guy make a play. Well, we don't have that on our team. To me, you don't have to be 6-6 or whatever, if you have good body adjustments ... you can do it."
Burress caught five touchdown passes with the Steelers last season, one more than Ward. But Ward had more touchdown catches than Burress in each of the previous two seasons with Tommy Maddox at quarterback, 10 to four in 2003 and 12 to seven in 2002 when the Steelers passed a lot more than they did with Ben Roethlisberger last season.
Burress has four touchdowns in four games for the Giants and his 25 receptions have him tied for eighth place in the NFC. He averages 15.8 yards per catch. Ward has 12 receptions in three games, but that leads the team. His average of 18.3 yards per catch is 6.3 yards longer than his career average. The Giants also have thrown 123 times and the Steelers just 60.
It's early in the season, but after scoring two touchdowns against the New England Patriots, including one to tie the score with 1:21 left, Ward believes he and Roethlisberger are building the kind of rapport that will turn even more productive.
"In the preseason we weren't clicking," Ward said. "But you can see it more and more.
"The touchdown for 85 yards [vs. the Patriots], he threw ball where I could get it, read the right coverage, did everything right, and I made a play for him. I took a 16-yard play and scored a touchdown."
Ward developed a strained hamstring muscle in the last game and coach Bill Cowher lists him as questionable for Monday night's contest in San Diego. Supposedly, that means he has a 50 percent chance of not playing; realistically, it's closer to zero percent.
Ward has not missed a game since he came to the Steelers as a third-round draft choice from Georgia in 1998, playing in 115 consecutive contests. He has started the past 82 games, back to the second game of 2000. He started 14 games in 1999, but Cowher decided to start rookie Plaxico Burress and second-year player Troy Edwards in 2000, bumping Ward from his starting job. It was a brief demotion. Ward replaced an injured Edwards in the second game of 2000 and has not missed a start since.
At one point this summer that streak seemed to be in jeopardy as Ward held out the first two weeks of training camp. He reported to camp and he and the team consummated a new deal the Monday before the season opener. But after he caught two passes for 25 yards in the first game, Ward heard complaints.
"I could hear some of the people go, 'Oh, you gave him the money.' But I don't sit there and overreact. When I do get the opportunity I take full advantage of it."
He followed with 10 receptions and four touchdowns the next two games.
"Everyone wanted to see what I would do without Plax," Ward said. "I know I'm getting better. The game has slowed down. Now it's a matter of me helping the younger guys, helping Antwaan and helping Ben to become a better quarterback."
Ward has made the past four Pro Bowls, the only Steelers receiver to make that many, and he topped the previous team record of 85 receptions three of the past four years. He caught 80 last season. He's 21 catches from breaking John Stallworth's team record of 537 career receptions and, after an off year, he appears to be the team's top scoring threat at the position. His 45 receiving touchdowns rank third on the team behind Stallworth (63) and Lynn Swann (51).
"It's a matter of being consistent," Ward said. "Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, that's how you judge a player in his career, consistency. That's my goal."