14 years is a long time to play in the NFL as most players are lucky to play half that long. Staying healthy is a key element for a player to play that long in the league, and remain productive, and right now I believe that Steelers veteran wide receiver Hines Ward isn\’t. Ever since Ward was trucked by Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson back in week 7 he has not been what I would call healthy. He missed a good portion of that game and the ankle injury he suffered forced him to miss the following week against the Patriots. Ward returned to play against the Ravens in week 9 and once again was forced out of that game early after incurring a big hit from Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
After the hit by Lewis, Ward got up slowly and grabbed for his ankle just before leaving the field. His eyes had a very glassy look to them and it was obvious that he sustained a concussion because of the hit. Although head coach Mike Tomlin said Ward wanted to return to the game, it is easy to see why they would not let him.
Leading up to the game against the Bengals this past Sunday, Ward was listed as practicing fully on the injury report with a head injury designation. Throw in the bum ankle and it is no wonder why he played so few snaps this past week. Had Emmanuel Sanders not been down with his knee injury, I think Ward might have only been used in case of emergency. Ward said Tuesday, “I am as healthy as the other guys in this locker room. I practiced Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. I was healthy. I am fine. I never made excuses for injury. I am practicing. If I get out there I give it all I can.” While I respect Ward and his comments, I just can\’t agree with them. He is not 100% and deep down he knows it.
The extraordinary play of second-year wide receiver Antonio Brown combined with a now healthy Jerricho Cotchery made the decision of Tomlin an easy one against the Bengals. Ward has played with a hitch in his step for years, but it seemed to be exaggerated the few plays he saw the field against the Bengals. It was even noted by the Steelers radio crew that his ankle seemed heavily taped.
Ward has never been a receiver that runs away from people as he has made a living finding soft areas of the field, especially on third downs. He has also been a reliable redzone threat and when healthy, one of the best blocking receivers the game has ever seen. His yards per catch is down this year, as you can see in the table below, even though his completion percentage remains strong. Since the arrival of Mike Wallace, the Steelers offense has shifted drastically to a more vertical air assault. Its success depends on the explosive play now and that is a part of Ward\’s game that is really affected the most by not being healthy.
Ward had is biggest explosive rate of his career last year, as 24% of the balls he caught went for 20 yards or more. On the flip side, he only had 59 receptions, the fewest he has had since 2000. For comparison sakes, Wallace has a career explosive rate right now of 35%, Brown an 18% rate and Sanders a 22% rate. The Brown rate might seem a little low, but this year it is 20% and likely to climb. Although Cotchery has barely gotten his Steelers career off the ground, he has a career explosive rate of 16%, the same as Ward\’s and he was handicapped with the Jets by lack of playing time and their quarterback carrousel the last several years. Cotchery is also currently much healthier than Ward after making it back from his hamstring injury that he suffered back in the preseason.
So where does that leave Ward right now? The bye week could not have come at a better time for the Steelers and Ward as it is long overdue. Ward has some time to get that ankle healthier for the final stretch as he will be needed. The final 6 games will see him likely serving in a role that he has excelled at his entire career and that is 3rd downs and redzone. The week 5 game against the Titans is a perfect example of how he should be used going forward. In that game Ward had 7 receptions with 3 of them coming on 3rd down. All 3 were productive as two of them moved the chains and another went for a touchdown. He is no longer an every down wide receiver, just a situational one and there is nothing wrong with that.
How he handles this new role is entirely up to him, but he has admitted as early as this past offseason how important getting one more Super Bowl ring is to him before he retires. He also needs just 19 catches for 1,000 in his career and a mere 30 yards to reach 12,000. The Steelers will certainly do their best to get him those stats as long as he stays healthy and doesn\’t become a distraction.
Mark my words, Ward will still contribute moving forward, it just won\’t be as much as we have seen over the years. Getting old happens to all of us, but Ward has done so gracefully.
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