Bouchette on the Steelers: He says he's 'owed nothing,' but doesn't Hines Ward deserve a little more?


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The Steelers coaches could have displayed better bedside manners when they benched Hines Ward last week.

Maybe the coaching staff believes that veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery, in his first season with the Steelers, can help the team more than Ward, in his 14th season with the Steelers.

And maybe they are correct. Hines Ward himself said Tuesday that he is "owed nothing" by the coaches. But this someday Hall of Fame candidate deserved one thing -- more respect through a simple, quiet meeting with one of his coaches to tell him that his role had changed.

This isn't some fly-by-night player here. This is the most decorated and productive receiver in Steelers history, a Super Bowl MVP and often the face and spokesman for the team.

It's not wrong that he lost his starting status or was dropped to No. 4 or even No. 5 on the depth chart. But someone owed him at least a heads-up that it was going to happen and maybe even an explanation as to why. Ward obviously could see it coming by how he was used in practices, but would it have hurt to have someone tell him before the practice week started?

It could have come from Mike Tomlin or Bruce Arians, who was Ward's position coach before he became offensive coordinator.

It would have taken them two minutes, somewhere in private so Ward could be given the chance to talk about it before the game on his terms, and he, the fans and the media were not blindsided by it.

Would that have been too much to ask?

Ward took the high road Tuesday, saying all the right things when a gaggle of media gathered around him in the locker room.

It comes time for everyone, sooner for athletes. The great ones, the ones who contributed to two Super Bowl victories and countless memorable moments, those who played through injuries and concussions and gave what Hines Ward did to play the game, deserve a little more respect when their time comes.

The Florida Factor

The runaway leader for the Steelers rookie of the year is Marcus Gilbert (pictured at left), their second-round draft choice from the University of Florida.

Gilbert, who was going to be groomed for their left-tackle job of the future, is their starting right tackle of the present. He stepped in after Willie Colon's season-ending injury in the first game and quickly ended the calls to bring back Flozell Adams.

Gilbert, like all rookies, had to do without the preparation time that the spring practices and study sessions would have afforded him. Then, he had a lengthy stay on the sideline in training camp with a hamstring injury.

"I studied my playbook and I knew when I got back on the field, I'd push harder," Gilbert said. "When Willie went down with his injury, I felt I was caught up, and they knew they could count on me."

When Max Starks rejoined the team Oct. 5 and started immediately at left tackle, it gave the Steelers three former Gators in their starting line, including Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. Gilbert credits Starks, who has started at both tackles, for helping his progress.

"Bringing him back has really helped us a lot. I'm grateful to have a dude like him; he's like a brother helping me out. Without Max, I don't think I would be progressing as I have."

The whole line has progressed since Starks' arrival and since the five starters have been able to stay healthy. After seven different starting offensive line combinations through seven games, they have started the same five the past four.

They'll come ... but when?

Like a .350 hitter batting .198 in June, the Steelers defense is due for a gaggle of turnovers over the final six games.

Through 10 games, they have six turnovers, four interceptions. That puts them on a pace to get 9 or 10 for the season. Last season, they had 35. Four NFL players have more interceptions than the entire Steelers defense.

They may be the first 7-3 team -- tied for the best record in the AFC -- to have a turnover disparity of minus-10.

Troy Polamalu led the Steelers with seven interceptions last season on the way to being named NFL defensive player of the year. He has none this season, although he did score the only touchdown by the defense on a returned fumble to help them beat Indianapolis.

"It comes down to a little bit of everything," Polamalu said, explaining what goes into turnovers. "How prepared you can be, how comfortable you feel with the offense, how comfortable you feel with the defense, seizing those opportunities you may have, playing your technique.

"All of it obviously comes down to whether you can be in position to make turnovers. We just haven't been making any. Hopefully, we'll be better at that."

Shedding new light on an old theory

James Farrior, who turns 37 in January, does not think the Steelers' heavy veteran presence necessarily will help them down the stretch.

He said that because he was fooled into thinking, as many were, that veteran presence would help at the start of the season after the lockout prevented all those spring practices.

"We said that at the beginning of the season, how we should have an advantage being that we're an older group of guys, a veteran group and with the lockout we didn't need that much preparation and work," the defensive captain said.

"But it showed that wasn't really true because we're 7-3, we're not 10-0. So I don't think it really makes a big difference. It's about what you put on the field."

And, as they have moved through this season, many veterans have lost some of their status. Bryant McFadden went from starting cornerback to No. 5. Hines Ward went from starting receiver to, at least Sunday, No. 4. Starters Aaron Smith and Willie Colon were lost for the season. Young backup Steve McLendon has been getting more time playing nose tackle, and Marcus Gilbert took over at right tackle.


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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