Hines Ward at top of his game again

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The man is no ordinary player. He's one of the NFL's finest, a Super Bowl MVP no less, and there he was Sunday giving up his body to put a brutal block on a poor, unsuspecting cornerback late in a game that his team was comfortably winning.

"That's how I play," the Steelers' Hines Ward said, shrugging.

This time, the hit on Cleveland Browns cornerback Daven Holly was a little late. "I saw the flag and I asked the ref, 'What did I do?' Ward said after the Steelers' 34-7 victory in Cleveland. "He said I was a second or a second-and-a-half late. I never try to hurt anyone out there, but I'm going to hit you before you hit me. Najeh [Davenport] was fighting for tough extra yards, and I'm going to do everything I can to help get him in the end zone. I had committed to making that hit. There was no turning back. I'm not going to apologize for that."

Nice to know some things don't change, isn't it?

The Steelers have a new coach, a new offense and, in some ways, a new philosophy, but it's still comforting to look out on the field and watch No. 86 do his thing.

Actually, Ward has changed, but it's a change for the good. He's not the same player who never felt quite right last season after missing training camp with a hamstring injury. He didn't make the Pro Bowl for the first time in five years.

"I'm back in form," Ward said. "My weight is down. I'm running my routes faster. I'm stronger. I'm back to where I need to be."

It showed on the Steelers' first possession when Ward pulled in a fade pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a 5-yard touchdown. It showed again later when Ward turned a short pass into a 24-yard gain, getting a crushing block along the way from wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who obviously has been paying attention to how Ward does it downfield. Holmes' hit on cornerback Eric Wright was hard and clean, the way most of Ward's famously punishing blocks are, although the concussed Holly, the Browns and their angry fans might disagree on that latter point.

"I'm just trying to prove all the naysayers wrong who are saying I'm old and washed up," Ward said.

That's almost laughable. Ward's naysayers exist only in his mind. But if he wants to believe people are saying he's washed up, that's fine. It's always something with him. He's always looking for motivation. It has been that way since he came into the NFL. He wasn't supposed to make it as a third-round draft choice. He wasn't supposed to be a starter. He wasn't supposed to keep his job ahead of No. 1 picks Troy Edwards and Plaxico Burress. He wasn't supposed to be worth the big money. He wasn't supposed to be a Super Bowl hero. He wasn't supposed to stay hungry after winning that Super Bowl MVP award.

You get the idea.

"I want to show people that I can be Ben's go-to guy," Ward said. "Like that touchdown on the fade pattern. People always say you need a 6-foot-6 guy to score in the red zone. That's ridiculous. All you need is a guy who's willing to go get the ball. I want to be that guy for this football team. I want Ben to trust me."

As if Roethlisberger doesn't.

The entire team trusts Ward, which is why the players voted him their offensive captain.

It's a role he takes seriously. He said the first thing he did after the win was huddle with wide receivers Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington, who didn't have a catch.

"We knew going in this offense was going to spread the ball around," Ward said.

"Everyone is going to get their fair share. I told those guys that their time is coming. 'Don't worry about it. Don't get caught up in the numbers. Who knows? The next game I might only catch one or two balls.' "

Not likely.

Holmes has become Roethlisberger's best deep threat and caught a 40-yard touchdown pass Sunday. Tight end Heath Miller is an extraordinary receiver, which is why it was great to see the Steelers use him so much against the Browns, throwing to him four times, once for a 22-yard touchdown.

But Ward still is Roethlisberger's most dependable receiver.

The man is no ordinary player. He's one of the NFL's finest, and he'll be there all season, giving up his body to make a catch and fight for extra yards.

Hey, it's how he plays.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com


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