Steelers boast deep receiving corps
Hines Ward is in his 11th season with the Steelers, and in that time he has seen an almost endless parade of wide receivers line up alongside him. But the group he takes the field with in 2008 might be one of the best.
Ward has gone from wide-eyed rookie scratching just to get on the field to the franchise record-holder in several major receiving categories. Now at 32, he's an elder statesmen of what has become a deep and talented group of pass-catchers.
"I'm an old head of the team," Ward said Wednesday. "But those guys keep pushing me. Every time (receivers Santonio Holmes or Nate Washington) make a play, I want to go out there and make a play, too."
Ward will have plenty of people to push him this season. Holmes, a first-round draft choice in 2006, appears poised for a breakout season after averaging 18.1 yards per catch and scoring eight touchdowns last season.
Washington is entering his fourth season, having scored nine times during the past two seasons. Heath Miller is known as one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the game. And the team drafted 6-foot-4 Limas Sweed in the second round of this year's draft after selecting 6-3 Dallas Baker in the 2007 seventh round.
Throw in running backs Willie Parker, Mewelde Moore and Rashard Mendenhall and backup tight end Matt Spaeth _ all known for their receiving abilities _ and the Steelers have options for spreading the ball around.
"It will all work itself out," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "It's a lot of fun, though. You like to have weapons, and each guy brings something different to the table. You want to use them all."
With the exception of Ward, Pittsburgh traditionally has not re-signed its free agent wide receivers, leading to something of a revolving door at the position.
During Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season four years ago, other than Ward, only three passes were caught by a player still on the roster now (all by Parker). Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El signed lucrative contracts with other teams.
The Steelers have made an effort to stockpile pass-catchers since.
"I can't really say that this is best group because then I wouldn't be doing (Burress) justice and (Randle El) and guys like that," Roethlisberger said. "I won't say this is the best group, but I do love the group that I have. They're awesome."
The top three on the depth chart at wideout won't change from last season: Ward and Holmes will start with Washington the No. 3 man.
Sweed and Baker likely will factor in after that, with Miller (averaging 40 catches and six touchdowns per season) and Spaeth (the Mackey Award winner in 2006 as the nation's best college tight end after breaking receiving records at the University of Minnesota) seeing the field often at tight end.
"The more versatility we can have as receivers, the harder we're going to be to defend," Miller said.
"Anytime you have the guys you see on this offense, it's exciting," Sweed said. "There's just so many ways that these guys can strike offensively."