When Hines Ward eventually retires from the NFL, he will go down as the greatest Steelers wide receiver to ever play the game. An impressive feat for someone that is on a team with two Hall of Fame receivers.
There is no questioning that the Steelers may not have made it to the three Super Bowls in the last six years without Hines Ward, and there is a good chance that they may not have won Super Bowl XL without Ward.
But, in today's NFL, unfortunately, the only thing that counts is what have you done this year.
While the Steelers prepare to take on the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens in the next two weeks, two games that will define the Pittsburgh Steelers' season, could the Steelers be better without Ward in the game?
When the Steelers take the field Sunday against the New England Patriots, they are going to be playing for first place. Not only in the AFC North, but in the entire AFC.
Currently, the Patriots sit with a 5-1 record, while the Steelers are at 5-2. A victory by the Steelers, and they will take a game lead over the Patriots. It will also set them up for the following week, when they play the Baltimore Ravens, with the chance to take a two-game lead in the AFC North.
With Tom Brady and Bill Belicheat—I mean, Belichick—on the other sideline, you can be sure that there are going to be a lot of points on the board. For the Steelers to win this game, they are not only going to have to hold the Patriots to under 28 points, they are going to have to, obviously, score more than 28 points.
In doing so, they are going to have to attack the weakness of the Patriots defense: their secondary.
Currently, the Patriots are ranked dead last in the NFL in passing yards against, allowing 322 yards per game. Sure, it may be (as Mike Tomlin said yesterday) that teams are passing more because they are trailing the Patriots, but that does not change the fact that the Patriots are the only team in the NFL to be giving up over 300 yards per game in the air.
Looking at their secondary, there is not a player on the roster that is going to be able to keep up with Mike Wallace. I expect Wallace to draw double- and triple-teams from the first snap of the game until the last. That leaves the others on the offense to pick up the slack.
Yes, Hines Ward is fantastic at moving the chains. And if he is healthy, he should be in the game on third down with five to 10 yards needed for a first down.
If it is first or second down, and the Steelers decide to go three wide, then Hines needs to be on the sideline.
For starters, Ward was carted off the field last week. Injuries happen, and Ward has been very durable over the course of his career. That does not change the fact that he is injured, and he was carted off the field against the Cardinals.
Add to that, Ward was never fast in the first place. Make no mistake about it, Ward is not going to be breaking long TD runs anymore. Yes, he will catch the ball and he will get first downs. But, when you are playing a game that is going to require big plays to win, Ward is not the man you want on the outside.
The Steelers will be able to start Antonio Brown opposite of Wallace, and dare them to double Wallace. No, Brown is not as good as Wallace yet, but that does not mean he is not as fast as him. Wallace has grown as a route runner, and he is a better player because of that. If they are doubling him all day, then Wallace is going to have to be the deep threat—a role that fits him well.
After Brown, the Steelers have Emmanuel Sanders. Though Sanders was drafted before Brown, injuries limited him preseason playing time, and Brown developed great chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger.
After the game against the Cardinals, it seems that Roethlisberger and Brown have again found the groove they had in the preseason.
Yes, when it gets late in the game, the Steelers may need to control the clock and keep Tom Brady off the field. But, before they can milk the clock, they are going to have to have a lead, and Wallace, Brown and Sanders—in this situation—are probably better suited for that type of game plan that Ward.