It's not as if they called Santonio Holmes a wimp. That would be ridiculous. You don't become a starter in the NFL by being soft. But it was curious what impressed the Steelers coaches and players most about Holmes' performance in the 24-13 victory Sunday at Cincinnati. It wasn't his diving 42-yard catch that set up the first touchdown or his two critical third-down catches that kept later scoring drives going. It was the ice bags attached to his ribs and right thigh after the game.
"Santonio is learning how to play beat up," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
Don't underestimate that.
"He's understanding that he can go over the middle and make plays," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He caught that one slant where he went real high, caught it and got hit. That's him maturing. Last year, he probably goes up and ducks."
Added Arians: "He's making the really tough catch and getting up to make the next one. He took a big hit on that thigh in the first half. I don't know that he would have came back and played in the second half last season."
It's not as if they gave Holmes a choice against the Bengals.
"Everybody was yelling at me to get back in the game," Holmes said.
Well, not everybody.
"Ben asked me after almost every play if I was OK," Holmes said. "I told him, 'Ben, don't worry about me. I've got your back.' "
Roethlisberger's concern is understandable. Holmes gives Big Ben a third go-to receiver along with redoubtable Hines Ward and rising star Heath Miller. The man drops nothing. "He makes my job so much easier," Roethlisberger said.
It's no coincidence that Roethlisberger looked for Holmes on those important third-down conversions Sunday on out-of-the-pocket throws. "Ben is always saying never to give up on a play," Holmes said. "He hates to leave anything on the field." Holmes certainly didn't give up on a third-and-4 play early in the second quarter even though defensive tackle John Thornton had Roethlisberger by the legs and was pulling him down. His catch was good for 7 yards.
Holmes also didn't let up after the Bengals had Roethlisberger scrambling for his life on a third-and-6 play midway through the fourth quarter. He grabbed Roethlisberger's off-balance, sidearm pass for a 12-yard gain to set up the clinching field goal, a play that many, including Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, thought might have been the play of the day. "Big-time play," the coach called it.
Holmes got the Steelers going with his 42-yard catch. Roethlisberger's pump fake gave him time to get behind cornerback Leon Hall. It was Holmes' third catch of at least 40 yards this season. He has four of the Steelers' five longest receptions.
"I'll let everyone else do the judging and just keep making plays for my team," Holmes said when asked if he felt he was becoming an elite NFL receiver in just his second season. He didn't yield much ground on that subject when pressed again later. "Just say I'm working hard toward becoming one of the great receivers in this league."
Who better than Arians -- the Steelers' receivers coach for three seasons before getting the big promotion from Tomlin -- to ask for a judgment of Holmes?
"Right now, he's becoming a really good player. There's no doubt [stardom] is in his future as long as he keeps working hard. It's just a matter of him becoming more consistent."
There's more to it than just catching passes. Arians raved about Holmes' blocking. It's a significant factor in Willie Parker's 726 rushing yards -- the second-best total in the NFL -- and the Steelers' 5-2 record.
"What a legacy Hines has left in that room," Arians said. "The other guys see what he does as a blocker and it has an impact on everyone ...
"You block in this league with one muscle -- your heart."
That leads us back to Holmes' toughness.
It takes a real man to block NFL linebackers and safeties, to take the ferocious hits from those linebackers and safeties on catches over the middle.
"It's either in you or it isn't," Ward said. "It's in Santonio."
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com .