In the Bill Cowher era, the Pittsburgh Steelers were well-known for a smashmouth rushing attack and a stout defense. In 2002 though, the Steelers lit up the skies in the passing game, putting together one of the better wide receiver groups in NFL history, according to Pro Football Network’s Dalton Miller.
That 2002 group in the black and gold was headlined by Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, and featured rookie receiver Antwaan Randle El, who successfully made the transition to receiver from quarterback at Indiana University. Together, Ward and Burress produced more than 2,600 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns with quarterbacks Tommy Maddox and Kordell Stewart, helping the Steelers record a 10-5-1 record and winning the AFC North before losing in the playoffs to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional Round.
Pro Football Network’s Dalton Miller put together a list of the greatest wide receiver groups in NFL history, and surprisingly the Steelers’ 2002 group cracked the ranking at No. 11 overall, thanks to Ward’s and Burress’s terrific ’02 season.
“With a duo of Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, the Steelers had one of the most formidable one-two punches in the NFL for a short period. Their contribution alone garners discussion. After all, they combined for over 2,600 yards between them and accounted for 19 touchdowns. However, they also had the versatility of Antwaan Randle El,” Miller writes. “Randle El only had 489 yards receiving, but his presence and efficiency helped the offense hum. Thus, star power and top-end performance propelled the 2002 Steelers over the 2006 Bengals’ squad.”
Together, Ward and Burress were quite the formidable pairing in Pittsburgh. Burress served as more of the deep threat, using his massive size and speed to stretch the field and haul in deep shots from Maddox and Stewart, while Ward was more of the possession receiver, consistently moving the chains and creating plays after the catch.
Burress finished the 2002 season with 78 catches for 1,,325 yards and seven touchdowns, while Ward hauled in 112 passes for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns. Maddox and Stewart took advantage of the size, speed, and toughness of the duo to carve up opposing defenses in 2002 under Mike Mularkey’s offense, slowly ushering the Steelers into a new era of football.
Two years later, with Burress, Ward and Randle El continuing to best opposing secondaries, the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger, eventually going on a run in 2004 before Burress left to sign with the New York Giants in free agency.
Ultimately, the 2002 season ended up being a career-best for the former Michigan State star, as Burress put up the most catches and yards in a single season, and posted his fourth-most touchdowns in a season catching passes from Maddox and Stewart.