Steelers need to blend young, old

By John Harris
Friday, August 29, 2008
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Santonio Holmes is what Hines Ward used to be -- a young receiver full of talent and himself.

Holmes, 24, is the Steelers' top offensive playmaker. But he takes a backseat in fan and media popularity to Ward, 32, who remains one of the faces of the franchise.

The Steelers are at a crossroads of sorts, as second-year coach Mike Tomlin attempts to bridge the gap between some of his established veterans and rising young players without losing games and bruising egos.

Ward is the Steelers' all-time leading receiver and a co-captain. But for the Steelers to be all that they can be on offense, Tomlin has to hand the keys over to Holmes in the passing game.

Like yesterday.

Holmes should become as important to the Steelers as Randy Moss is to the Patriots, Terrell Owens is to the Cowboys, Chad Johnson is to the Bengals, Steve Smith is to the Panthers, Reggie Wayne is to the Colts, Braylon Edwards is to the Browns and Plaxico Burress is to the Giants.

Holmes is that good, that explosive.

That's not a knock on Ward as much as it is an acknowledgement of Holmes' vast playmaking skills.

The same thing is happening on defense, where second-year linebacker Lawrence Timmons is pushing starter Larry Foote for more playing time, and where aggressive third-year free safety Anthony Smith is inching his way toward eventually replacing Ryan Clark in the lineup once he learns the system.

It could be a year from now before Timmons and Smith become regulars, but what's important is that the Steelers begin the infusion of their young talent sooner, rather than later.

Change is never easy. But in the Steelers' case, it is not only inevitable, but downright necessary.

One of the Steelers' greatest strengths over the years -- a reliance on substance over flash -- could also become a team weakness.

Sometimes, it's better to be talented, rather than solid, or merely dependable. Sometimes, it's better to get the ball in Holmes' hands as much as possible.

Sometimes, a team has to know when to tell an old friend to take a backseat.

That's what must occur with Holmes and Ward changing roles and responsibilities in the offense. And that's what must occur with Foote conceding more snaps to Timmons on defense.

Nobody said it would be easy. But it's absolutely necessary for the Steelers' continued success.

Holmes, who led the NFL in yards per catch last season, can occupy double teams that will create wider running lanes and result in a more productive ground game.

Foote is a run-stopper who knows the Steelers' system like the back of his hand. But Foote can't rush the quarterback and keep up with running backs and tight ends in the passing game the way Timmons can.

Even if the Steelers play Foote on first and second down and insert Timmons on third down, at least that's a start.

Nothing beats experience. Nothing, that is, except young talented legs.

The Steelers have both. The trick is learning how to have the best of both worlds while maintaining a winning tradition.

John Harris is a sports writer for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at [email=""][/email] or 412-481-5432.