The Evolution Of The Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Receiving Corps

By Cian Fahey

When Hines Ward retired this year, he brought into the twilight with him franchise records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. It really was a sad day when Ward retired. Ward\’s records were more impressive than they appear on paper, which is saying something considering they are very impressive on paper.

What the statistics don\’t tell you however, is that Ward generally played on a run-first team as the only legitimate threat on the outside. Not only did Ward receive less opportunities because of the type of offense the Steelers ran for the most part of his career, he was often looking to fight through extensive coverage and double teams as he rarely had any talent across from him.

Once Ben Roethlisberger got to Pittsburgh, those aspects of the offense were slowly phased out until last year when the team became a pass oriented group.

These days the Steelers don\’t really have a Hines Ward. They do have Jerricho Cotchery who plays the game in a similar fashion to Ward, but they don\’t have that one receiver who they rely on completely. The Steelers will spread the ball out a lot this year.

That is not something Roethlisberger was initially able to do. During his rookie season, Roethlisberger had Ward, Plaxico Burress on the outside, with Antwaan Randle El playing in the slot. Each of those players were capable receivers, but outside of Ward, both Randle El and Burress were limited to specific roles.

Randle El was the gadget guy whose most famous moment in a Steelers jersey came when he threw a touchdown pass to Ward in Super Bowl XL. Burress was a big bodied receiver who was capable of beating physical cornerbacks but not the most dynamic of players.

Even if the receivers had been stars during the early years of Roethlisberger\’s career, they still wouldn\’t have seen that many passes coming their way as the offense focused on Jerome Bettis, with Duce Staley, in 2004 and Willie Parker, with some Bettis, in 2005.

The 2005 season was even worse for the Steelers\’ passing game as Burress left for New York and Cedrick Wilson stepped into his place. Fortunately a rookie tight end also came in to help Roethlisberger.

After their Super Bowl victory in 2005, the Steelers\’ receivers began to evolve with the arrival of former Ohio State receiver Santonio Holmes in the first round of the draft. Holmes had an abundance of talent which led to a fine rookie season.

However Randle El had now departed also which meant that Wilson and second-year pro Nate Washington played behind Holmes and Ward. Ward was still close enough to his prime at this stage to be a dynamic starting receiver, while Holmes was only looking to refine his craft. Washington and Wilson however were limited to certain aspects of the game.

Wilson wasn\’t capable of being a game-changer while Washington mostly just ran deep routes and struggled to catch the ball.

The Steelers looked to add more diversity to the receiving corps in the 2008 draft but Limas Sweed never panned out after being drafted in the second round. Sweed was expected to be the third option for Roethlisberger and would have provided the team with a dynamic group of receivers if he had reached his potential.

The receiver position is completely different to any other set of players in the NFL. On the offensive line, you want to have similar style guards to help your offense ie: having one run blocking specialist and one pass blocking specialist is no use. At most other positions, it is the same situation.

With receivers, you want to have players who can do different things to complement each other. If you have a possession receiver, you need someone to stretch the field. If all your receivers are small, you need a tall guy to create matchup problems.

In a perfect world, each of those receivers is dynamic enough to do everything. Most teams can\’t even dream of the perfect set of receivers, but the Pittsburgh Steelers don\’t need to dream, it\’s their reality.

After whiffing on Sweed, the Steelers eventually landed Mike Wallace in the third round of the 2009 draft. As a rookie Wallace brought new life to the Steelers\’ receiving corps because they had a third legitimate game changing receiver without the inconsistencies or limitations that came with their previous options.

Wallace mostly ran deep routes, but showed at times that he could make plays over the middle.

Even though they had Ward, Holmes and Wallace, there was still a clear pecking order and identity for each player. Holmes was the dynamic route runner who could break games open. Wallace went deep. Ward was finally beginning to show some limitations as he got older.

Nonetheless, the Steelers were still a far cry from where they had initially been with Roethlisberger as a rookie.

Then it all appeared to fall apart when Holmes was traded to the New York Jets because of character concerns more than likely. Holmes left the Steelers and Randle El was re-signed to cover his loss. At least, that was the short term plan.

They may just be smarter than everyone else, or just downright lucky, but the Steelers added two rookies in 2010 who have completely revamped the team\’s receiving corps. With Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown joining the roster coupled with Wallace\’s emergence as a superstar, the Steelers\’ receiving corp finally was able to match any in the league.

Step by step, the Steelers had transitioned from rigid receivers, to the most dynamic and congruent group in the NFL. It had been a slow process, but a process nonetheless. The final step wasn\’t with the two rookies however, the final step came with the addition of a veteran in the form of Cotchery last off-season.

Cotchery proved last season that he is a more than capable possession receiver with the ability to go deep when asked. Cotchery slides into the Ward role for the Steelers, but that role is not to carry the passing game on his own. That role is to provide a veteran presence for the talent which surrounds him.

Instead of Burress, the team has Sanders. Instead of Randle El, you get Brown. Instead of Wilson, you get Cotchery. Then you add in Wallace and it\’s no surprise that the Steelers are no longer considered a running team.

Each of the receivers on the Steelers\’ roster is dynamic and congruent with the others. You don\’t need to worry about possession receivers when Cotchery, Sanders and Brown can all carry out the job, with Wallace not being completely useless in that area too.

You definitely don\’t need a burner to stretch the field either as Sanders, Brown and Wallace are all lightning fast, while Cotchery isn\’t a slouch.

It may seem to some that the Steelers cannot function without Wallace, but the reality is Wallace is just a piece of an outstanding puzzle. Losing that piece certainly takes away from the group, but it doesn\’t ruin the overall picture.

The overall picture is something the Steelers tend to see better than most NFL franchises.

Follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf

  • Mancoljduf11

    this was such a good article until you ended it with Mike Wallace, stop undervalueing him!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! you cannot have a puzzle without all of its peices, thats like saying your heart can pump even if there is not any blood to pump , it makes no sense. and why are we are assuming he will be lost there is more to contracts then money and they take time to get done he will be a steeler for many years to come

  • Steeltyke

    Good article and I don’t think that you are undervaluing Wallace. Wallace is a piece of the puzzle that can be replaced just as can Cotchery, Sanders or Brown. Of course, what they add up to as a whole is greater than the individual elements and this is diminished if any of them are missing but as a group they are more flexible than anything the Steelers have had in the past. I really hope that the Steelers can keep all 3 of the young guys and find a capable replacement for Cotchery in a couple of years time. In the meantime, I am sure that Haley recognises the strength of the group and will use it extensively. When you also look at Heath Miller and players like Rainey & Batch out of the backfield, together with likely 2 out of Red, Dwyer & Clay running hard, one can see just how many weapons Ben will have at his disposal and how potent this offense can be.

  • Jason White

    Having Wallace certainly makes the receiving core more dynamic but they won’t fail if he chooses to holdout into the season. If Brown and Sanders are both on the field they are polished enough as route runners to get the job done. They don’t rely on speed as much as Wallace. Granted Wallace commands double teams that in turn helps Brown and company but its not the be all end all of the Steelers offensive success. If Toney Clemons makes the roster and I think he has a good shot he may be able to contribute as a 4th option if Wallace does indeed holdout. Cotchery is a reliable 3rd option and don’t forget Chris Rainey and what he may do for the passing game as a slot guy.

  • what if Toney Clemons is a replacement for Wallace. Maybe not this year but in the future he is just as fast and if can catch would fill the same role. because the steelers will be able to keep wallace at best only for another 2 years.

  • Mancoljduf11

    toney clemons is not even gaurenteed to make the final roster, and what makes you think they cannot keep wallace after two years. and if it is because of the larry fitzgerald money that wallace has already said is not true, then please do not even bother responding

  • kevin

    What ifs don’t win football games. I can understand people saying that Brown can be the number 1 in this offense without Wallace. Brown is a darn good player. Toney Clemons may never play a down in the NFL. He was a 7th rounder for a reason. He might turn into a fine player, but the odds are stacked against him.

  • the reason is because he will want too much money. this year he will be forced to sign the tender next they could put the franchise on him and after that he is gone. That is what happened with Holmes they let him go because it was his contract year not because of character issues. I do not believe he is such a special player to keep for big money. like a polamalu or roethlisberger even if he sits out this year I believe we will be fine without him.

  • Daveb1952

    When the FO drafted Clemmon, Wallace’s value to the team dropped by about a 1/3. No doubt, Wallace will play this year, and may get a long term deal, if he’s not too greedy. Frankly, I’m more concerned, actually, I lot more concerned about resigning Brown AND Sanders next year.

  • slevin


    They let go of ‘Tone for character concerns. From a compensation standpoint, they would have been better off letting him leave as a free agent and get a 3rd round comp pick. Obviously, the pick they got worked out just fine, but still.

    So by trading him, not only did they get a significantly lesser draft pick in return, but they also did not get another season out of him.

    Not at all saying it was a “bad” move, but to say it was made because he was going to leave the following year is completely wrong.

    He is no longer in a black and gold jersey because of character concerns. Plain and simple.

  • so if t was character issues why is Ben still on the team why is Ike on the team why did we draft Adams why is Rashard still on the team, why is Harrison still on the team. It was not character issues that is bull shit, they did not want to pay him at the end of the next year because he was just not that special.

  • slevin

    Im not saying his contract didnt play into it. But the reason he was TRADED instead of just not re-signed was because they were trying to:

    A. Save face as a franchise.

    B. send a message to the team

    C. Remove a distraction from the team.

    Obviously the barrage of ensuing character issues you mentioned (you forgot Hines DWI, btw) show that “B.” wasnt very successful.

    But again, to suggest the incident and conerns over his character werent the driving factor of trading a young, Pro Bowl, dynamic widereceiver for so liitle? Please. As I said before they’d have been better off letting him walk. Your argument holds no water and wreaks of a fan’s grudge against a former player.