By Cian Fahey
When Hines Ward retired this year, he brought into the twilight with him franchise records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. It really was a sad day when Ward retired. Ward\’s records were more impressive than they appear on paper, which is saying something considering they are very impressive on paper.
What the statistics don\’t tell you however, is that Ward generally played on a run-first team as the only legitimate threat on the outside. Not only did Ward receive less opportunities because of the type of offense the Steelers ran for the most part of his career, he was often looking to fight through extensive coverage and double teams as he rarely had any talent across from him.
Once Ben Roethlisberger got to Pittsburgh, those aspects of the offense were slowly phased out until last year when the team became a pass oriented group.
These days the Steelers don\’t really have a Hines Ward. They do have Jerricho Cotchery who plays the game in a similar fashion to Ward, but they don\’t have that one receiver who they rely on completely. The Steelers will spread the ball out a lot this year.
That is not something Roethlisberger was initially able to do. During his rookie season, Roethlisberger had Ward, Plaxico Burress on the outside, with Antwaan Randle El playing in the slot. Each of those players were capable receivers, but outside of Ward, both Randle El and Burress were limited to specific roles.
Randle El was the gadget guy whose most famous moment in a Steelers jersey came when he threw a touchdown pass to Ward in Super Bowl XL. Burress was a big bodied receiver who was capable of beating physical cornerbacks but not the most dynamic of players.
Even if the receivers had been stars during the early years of Roethlisberger\’s career, they still wouldn\’t have seen that many passes coming their way as the offense focused on Jerome Bettis, with Duce Staley, in 2004 and Willie Parker, with some Bettis, in 2005.
The 2005 season was even worse for the Steelers\’ passing game as Burress left for New York and Cedrick Wilson stepped into his place. Fortunately a rookie tight end also came in to help Roethlisberger.
After their Super Bowl victory in 2005, the Steelers\’ receivers began to evolve with the arrival of former Ohio State receiver Santonio Holmes in the first round of the draft. Holmes had an abundance of talent which led to a fine rookie season.
However Randle El had now departed also which meant that Wilson and second-year pro Nate Washington played behind Holmes and Ward. Ward was still close enough to his prime at this stage to be a dynamic starting receiver, while Holmes was only looking to refine his craft. Washington and Wilson however were limited to certain aspects of the game.
Wilson wasn\’t capable of being a game-changer while Washington mostly just ran deep routes and struggled to catch the ball.
The Steelers looked to add more diversity to the receiving corps in the 2008 draft but Limas Sweed never panned out after being drafted in the second round. Sweed was expected to be the third option for Roethlisberger and would have provided the team with a dynamic group of receivers if he had reached his potential.
The receiver position is completely different to any other set of players in the NFL. On the offensive line, you want to have similar style guards to help your offense ie: having one run blocking specialist and one pass blocking specialist is no use. At most other positions, it is the same situation.
With receivers, you want to have players who can do different things to complement each other. If you have a possession receiver, you need someone to stretch the field. If all your receivers are small, you need a tall guy to create matchup problems.
In a perfect world, each of those receivers is dynamic enough to do everything. Most teams can\’t even dream of the perfect set of receivers, but the Pittsburgh Steelers don\’t need to dream, it\’s their reality.
After whiffing on Sweed, the Steelers eventually landed Mike Wallace in the third round of the 2009 draft. As a rookie Wallace brought new life to the Steelers\’ receiving corps because they had a third legitimate game changing receiver without the inconsistencies or limitations that came with their previous options.
Wallace mostly ran deep routes, but showed at times that he could make plays over the middle.
Even though they had Ward, Holmes and Wallace, there was still a clear pecking order and identity for each player. Holmes was the dynamic route runner who could break games open. Wallace went deep. Ward was finally beginning to show some limitations as he got older.
Nonetheless, the Steelers were still a far cry from where they had initially been with Roethlisberger as a rookie.
Then it all appeared to fall apart when Holmes was traded to the New York Jets because of character concerns more than likely. Holmes left the Steelers and Randle El was re-signed to cover his loss. At least, that was the short term plan.
They may just be smarter than everyone else, or just downright lucky, but the Steelers added two rookies in 2010 who have completely revamped the team\’s receiving corps. With Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown joining the roster coupled with Wallace\’s emergence as a superstar, the Steelers\’ receiving corp finally was able to match any in the league.
Step by step, the Steelers had transitioned from rigid receivers, to the most dynamic and congruent group in the NFL. It had been a slow process, but a process nonetheless. The final step wasn\’t with the two rookies however, the final step came with the addition of a veteran in the form of Cotchery last off-season.
Cotchery proved last season that he is a more than capable possession receiver with the ability to go deep when asked. Cotchery slides into the Ward role for the Steelers, but that role is not to carry the passing game on his own. That role is to provide a veteran presence for the talent which surrounds him.
Instead of Burress, the team has Sanders. Instead of Randle El, you get Brown. Instead of Wilson, you get Cotchery. Then you add in Wallace and it\’s no surprise that the Steelers are no longer considered a running team.
Each of the receivers on the Steelers\’ roster is dynamic and congruent with the others. You don\’t need to worry about possession receivers when Cotchery, Sanders and Brown can all carry out the job, with Wallace not being completely useless in that area too.
You definitely don\’t need a burner to stretch the field either as Sanders, Brown and Wallace are all lightning fast, while Cotchery isn\’t a slouch.
It may seem to some that the Steelers cannot function without Wallace, but the reality is Wallace is just a piece of an outstanding puzzle. Losing that piece certainly takes away from the group, but it doesn\’t ruin the overall picture.
The overall picture is something the Steelers tend to see better than most NFL franchises.
Follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf