The Pittsburgh Steelers have wrestled with the question of age for several seasons. The majority of the starting players on their defensive front 7 are over 30 years old.
Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, James Farrior, and James Harrison are all closer to the end of their careers than either fans, or apparently the Steelers’ coaches, seem to want to admit. The same is true for Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. And key backup players like Chris Hoke and Larry Foote, aren’t spring chickens either.
We’ve all heard the cries for more youth on the defense. But what I haven’t heard very much is cries for youth on the offense. Specifically at wide receiver.
The Steelers have a talented group of young wide receivers who have given fans reason to believe that the team’s future at the position is bright.
Mike Wallace is already the team’s top receiver, and he’s also emerged as one of the most dangerous receiving threats in the NFL. Wallace will lead the Steelers’ receiving corps for years to come.
Second year receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are dynamic playmakers. They both have speed to burn, and are proving to coaches that they deserve more playing time.
Antonio Brown has caught 18 passes for 262 yards through 6 games. He’s averaging 14.6 yards per catch. Emmanuel Sanders has caught 8 passes for 127 yards, and is averaging 15.9 yards per catch.
Hines Ward is the veteran of the receiving corp. He’s 35 years old, and in his 14th season in the NFL. More importantly, Ward is the Steelers’ all-time receptions leader, and he’s one of the most beloved players in Steelers’ history.
And therein lies the problem. Fans love Hines. Coaches love Hines. Players love Hines. Nobody want to be the one to disrespect Hines.
But at this point in his career, Hines Ward is no longer the player he once was. Ward was never a fast player. But at 35 years old, Hines is just plain slow. He still has great hands, but he can’t really get separation from defenders.
Ward is still targeted routinely by Big Ben. In fact, only Mike Wallace has more receptions than Ward. However, Ward has the lowest yards per catch of the 4 primary wide receivers. Antonio Brown has fewer catches than Ward, but he has more yards. And Emmanuel Sanders is averaging over 5 yards more per catch than Ward. Do you know how much 5 extra yards per catch would help the Steelers?
Sanders excels as a possession receiver, just like Ward. The difference is that he’s much faster. So he can get to the spot faster than Ward. The same is true for Antonio Brown. If the Steelers played Wallace, Brown, and Sanders, they’d have a trio of speedy receivers who could blow the top off of any defense. That would open up things for the running game, and it would allow Heath Miller to run free underneath. Or it would simply allow Big Ben to pick his target as he launches bomb after bomb over the top of the defense.
None of that can happen with Ward in the lineup. But I believe that both coaches and fans are willing to accept the status quo out of respect for Ward, and in appreciation for the contribution that he’s made over the years.
It’s hard to say goodbye to star players. Just think about when Jerome Bettis was no longer good enough to start. Or Franco Harris. Or John Stallworth. or Louis Lipps. Nobody wanted to see them go. But for the good of the team, we knew that the time had come.
I love Hines Ward. He’s still probably the best blocking receiver in the NFL. But he’s no longer an elite wide receiver in the NFL. Moreover, he’s not going to be able to hold Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders off for much longer.
Respect keep Hines on the field for now. But pretty soon, the raw talent of Brown and Sanders is going to trump respect. And that’s going to be a hard day for fans and coaches alike. But that day is coming. And it’s coming soon.
Maybe it’s already here.