Disappearing Ward facing his biggest challenge yet

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In many ways, the Steelers game Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals was typical of the series. The Steelers made just enough plays and the Bengals just enough mistakes for the Steelers to win, 24-17. No one could have been surprised by the result, here or in Cincinnati. The Steelers are 10-1 at Paul Brown Stadium.

But in one significant way, the win was unlike any other Steelers game. For the first time, future Hall of Famer Hines Ward wasn't a big part of the offense even though he was healthy. He played sparingly -- in just a few packages -- and had one catch for 10 yards, the only time quarterback Ben Roethlisberger targeted him.

The Steelers coaches clearly believed the team had a better chance of winning with Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery at wide receiver ahead of Ward.

It's not hard to imagine it being that way the rest of the season, barring injuries.

It's also enough to make you wonder if Ward will reach his coveted career milestones in the final six regular-season games. He needs 19 catches for 1,000, 30 receiving yards for 12,000 and five touchdown catches for 90.

Ward long has taken great pride in proving people wrong. He always says he's motivated by the "naysayers," a big reason he has lasted 14 years in the NFL, put up those amazing numbers and been a big part of two Super Bowl-winning teams. But getting back on the field in a meaningful role this season is Ward's greatest challenge. It would be even tougher for him if not for Emmanuel Sanders' knee injury. Sanders was coming on before having surgery last week.

Wallace has developed into one of the NFL's best receivers. He's a threat to hit a home run on every play. In just his third season, he has hooked up with Roethlisberger for a franchise-record 11 touchdowns of at least 40 yards.

Brown, in his second season, quickly is becoming a star. He had five catches for 86 yards -- a curious total considering Ward's uniform number -- against the Bengals. In his past four games, he has 26 catches for 364 yards and one touchdown. Roethlisberger loves throwing to him.

Cotchery left the New York Jets after seven seasons and was signed as a free agent in August to provide depth. A hamstring injury forced him to miss the first three games and he didn't make his first catch until the New England game Oct. 30. But he received considerable playing time Nov. 6 against the Baltimore Ravens after Ward left early in the second quarter with concussion-like symptoms and had three catches for 44 yards. He caught two balls for 29 yards against the Bengals, including a 16-yard touchdown that gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead. He later had a 24-yard touchdown catch called back because of an offensive pass interference penalty on tight end Heath Miller.

"He's a savvy, veteran guy, a guy that we've been excited about having since the day we acquired him," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He's been a consummate professional. ... We've been extremely pleased with him."

Cotchery has grown on his teammates. Roethlisberger was jubilant on the field Sunday after Cotchery's touchdown.

"It's not like me, but I couldn't hold it back," Roethlisberger said. "I'm excited for him to get his first one."

So where does all of this leave Ward?

It's hard to blame Tomlin for not completely answering that question. We're not talking about Max Starks replacing Jonathan Scott at left tackle or William Gay taking over for Bryant McFadden at cornerback. We're talking about Cotchery replacing a Steelers legend, one of their all-time great players. Making such a move can't be easy for any coach. It can't be easy discussing it.

"We were just looking at some personnel groups and looking at ways we wanted to attack these people," Tomlin said when asked why Ward didn't play more against the Bengals. "It may not be any indication of his participation moving forward. It's just an indication of his participation today."

What else could Tomlin have said? That Ward is finished as a player and can't help the team anymore? Of course not. But it doesn't mean that Ward will be a big part of the offense again. Tomlin can't make that guarantee.

This has been a difficult season for Ward. He injured an ankle Oct. 23 in the Arizona game and had to sit out the next week against New England. Then against Baltimore, he was popped in the head by Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, a hit that resulted in a $20,000 fine for Lewis.

Now, there's this benching of sorts.

It will be interesting to see how Ward handles it. He dressed quickly after the game and left the locker room but is expected to face the media today after practice. He's such a prideful guy, such a wonderful competitor. But he can't gripe. That would be unseemly. The Steelers are 7-3 and in first place in the AFC North Division. It's more likely he'll say that no one should count him out, that he still can get open, that he still can make plays for Roethlisberger and the offense.

Really, what else can Ward say?

Maybe the off week comes at just the right time for Ward. Maybe it won't just give his body a chance to heal. Maybe it will energize him.

That's a nice thought.

Ward is going to need every bit of that energy to take on this challenge.

The naysayers are going to be right one day.

They always are right in the end.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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