Santonio Holmes seems to be growing faster than his yards per catch, which led the NFL last season. He talked about how he and his teammates cannot be selfish, about how his goals do not matter as much as those of his team. He acknowledged the many talents on offense but said it won't matter if players don't buckle down and produce.
In short, he sounded like a leader of the wideouts.
"It's hard for him to really become the leader," Hines Ward said. "I'm still here."
As Ward enters his 11th season, there is little reason to believe he no longer will serve as the standard-bearer for Steelers wide receivers, as he has done this entire century. Yet there is room for a second in command, and the rising Holmes wants to stake his claim in his third NFL season.
"It's going to be exciting this year,'' Holmes declared. "I'm looking for a lot of big things from myself. I'm expecting a lot out of our team this year ... I'm expecting to be more involved in the offense this year."
The next question for Holmes came with a lit fuse: Are you going to be Ben Roethlisberger's No. 1 option in 2008? As an aside, Holmes led the Steelers with 942 yards receiving and nine touchdowns last season, and his 18.1 yards per catch topped the NFL. His 52 receptions were second to Ward's 71 as Ward led the team in catches for the ninth consecutive season.
"I'm looking forward to it, but Hines is still our go-to guy," Holmes answered. "We need those first downs, we need those small catches across the middle, we need a big-game play from Hines. He's still going to be there for us.
"I'm used more so as a deep threat, everyone would say. But, at the same time, I think my opportunity will come to become the leader of the team."
There does not have to be an either or with Holmes and Ward. In the ego-driven world of NFL wide receivers, everyone wants to know who the "go-to-guy" is, who's the "man." It's not really like that with the Steelers, although a big ego at anytime could jump in and try to make it so, Holmes is not taking the Chad Johnson-Terrell Owens-Randy Moss approach, and, with the kind of second season he had, he could start doing it if he wanted.
Holmes sounds interested in being the man, while acknowledging that Ward still holds that title. Had Plaxico Burress stuck around, the dynamic might have been different because Burress was more a contemporary of Ward's and ego might have gotten the better of their relationship.
But Burress left, and Ward became the mentor for all other Steelers wide receivers, including Holmes. And Ward believes Holmes is a worthy successor in the wideout leadership position.
"He's a great wideout," Ward said to open the topic. "One thing I like, he's a great student of the game. He's always asking. When I tell him something, its not, 'Oh, I know!' He says, 'I see what you're talking about.'
"He definitely has leadership skills. You don't have to be a vocal guy, just lead by example because there's always somebody watching you."
This Holmes-Ward partnership should thrive because Ward is the tough, possession receiver, the one to look for on third down. Holmes has developed into the home-run threat.
The Steelers have done a good job of surrounding their franchise quarterback with the kind of skilled talent he needs. Roethlisberger can call on those two, plus a maturing Nate Washington and 6-foot-4 second-round pick Limas Sweed, the tall receiver the quarterback requested before the draft. There's also 6-5 tight end Heath Miller and 6-7 Matt Spaeth, a second-year man. At running back, there's a healthy two-time Pro Bowler Willie Parker, who led the NFL in rushing right up until the next-to-last game of the season when his fibula was broken -- plus first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall and new third-down back Mewelde Moore.
What more can a quarterback ask for (a competent offensive line, but that's another matter)?
"We're just as talented as anyone in the league," Ward said of the offense. "We have Heath at tight end, Santonio, myself, Nate, Sweed. We have a one-two running back punch.
"Ben has weapons around him, so the excuses shouldn't be made."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published August 1, 2008 4:00 AM