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Is it Hines’ time?

October 20, 2011 By: Admin Category: Players

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.

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13 Comments to “Is it Hines’ time?”

  1. Dan Reisner says:

    Unfortunately, you are exactly right. The solution for now is to stop using him on obvious passing downs but leave him in for running plays because he blocks well and PAP.

  2. You talk like Troy is 50 yrs old…he’s only 30. As far as Hines it might be time but I still wanna see him in there.

  3. @Dan,
    Hines’ blocking definitely helps in the running game. Hopefully, he’s teaching the young guys to do the same.

    I don’t think that Hines’ pride will allow him to accept not being used on obvious passing downs. But we shall see. Eventually, the Steelers are going to have to make that decision.

  4. Justin,
    I was afraid that was going to happen. I barely mentioned Troy, yet you focused on him more than you focused on the issue at hand, which is Hines Ward.

    Experience has taught me that Steelers fans don’t react well to any negative comments about Troy Polamalu, regardless of how minor the remark. You just proved that point. But I have to ask you, do you think Troy is closer to the beginning of his career, or the end of his career? Think about Troy’s injury history. Then think about the way he throws his body around. Do you remember the concussion-like symptoms that he had after the Jaguars game? Do you seriously think he’s going to be able to throw his body around like that at 35 or 36 years old?

    I love Troy, and I’d love to see him play forever. But I’m realistic enough to know that that just isn’t going to happen. Troy’s probably got 3-4 years left in him. Eventually, we’re all gonna have to face the inevitability of his aging and decline.

  5. Hines has been there for the Steelers win or loose. He may be getting some age to him but he can still move on the field. Sure these young players can move alot faster but also get more injurys. Age is just a number, if the older players are not doing harm to the team then leave them be. I’m sure the time will come when each man on the team will know when it’s time to set on the side lines. I am a Steelers fan from way back, and seen the best leave.

  6. Thanks for reminding us of our own mortality! Seriously, very well written, and a good point. I still want Hines in on the goal line, though, and not just ’cause of that awesome leaping TD. Speed doesn’t do you a lot of good on a 15yd field. It’s precision and toughness that makes the passing game work in the redzone, which Hines has in spades. He has the veteran savvy and the timing with Ben to still be our most productive receiver in the redzone.

    And you’re right about Troy, unless they perhaps convert him to a deep ballhawking safety like Ed Reed (the glorified punt returner).

  7. Matthew,
    I knew I could count on you to come through with a great insight.

    I completely agree with you on the redzone point. Speed isn’t as important in a tight field. Veteran savvy and good hands become much more important, and Hines has both.

    In the redzone, I’d much rather see Ben throwing to Hines Ward or Heath Miller. I know that they have the highest probability of holding onto the ball.

  8. Ann,
    You said “Age is just a number, if the older players are not doing harm to the team then leave them be”.

    I understand the sentiment, but I disagree with it.

    Jerome Bettis wasn’t “doing harm to the team”, but Willie Parker was better (so was Duce Staley).

    Aaron Smith may not be doing harm to the team, but Ziggy Hood is better.

    Joey Porter may not have been doing harm to the team, but James Harrison was better.

    Larry Foote wasn’t doing harm to the team, but Lawrence Timmons was better.

    For most situations during the game, Antonio Brown is turning into a better option than Hines Ward. I hate saying that, because I love Hines Ward, but it’s still true.

  9. For the person who thinks Duce Staley was better… why did Bettis take his starting role over again and not look back… Duce wasn’t ever better than the Bus… even when he started over him… Parker was better though, I will give you that.

  10. I agree about all of the other assessments though… but Duce was definitely not better than the Bus at that time in both of their careers… as evidenced by him getting injured and never heard from again…

  11. Oh… and totally true about Brown and Sanders being better receiving options though… obviously you lose something in the blocking department though.

  12. Steve,
    I don’t want this to become a discussion about Jerome Bettis, but you may remember that Duce Staley was leading the NFL in rushing before getting hurt. He was better than Bettis. Not for his career, but at that point in time.

  13. Shoot Im a die hard Steelers fan and I’m with just I think Troy has at least 5 more years in him maybe even more. It is goons suck to
    See Hines go I hope he plays another year and retires as a Steeler I don’t want him to get traded just for more playing time cause he is at the end of his career.


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