When he made it to the Pro Bowl last season, Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall won a competition for the "NFL's Fastest Man." Not surprising.
When he was at Virginia Tech, Hall was timed on an indoor track at 4.15 seconds in the 40-yard dash, a record at a school whose football roster once included Michael Vick.
"That means I must run a 4.13," said Hines Ward, laughing.
It was Hall who was chasing Ward all over the field Sunday at the Georgia Dome when Ward had eight catches and set career highs with 171 yards and three touchdowns.
But, more significantly, it was Hall who was losing ground to Ward on a 70-yard touchdown catch in which the four-time Pro Bowl receiver outran Hall and cornerback Jason Webster to the end zone.
And he did it with only one shoe.
"The whole speed thing, to me, is overrated," Ward said. "I'm the only receiver since I've been here to take a skinny route all the way and I've done it twice. I did it last year against New England and I did it this year against supposedly the fastest man in the league. I like to call it running
scared. When you're running scared, it's not based on 40 time."
The reference was to his 85-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown in the 23-20 loss last year to the Patriots, the longest reception in Heinz Field history.
But this was more impressive because Ward, after catching the ball near the Atlanta 40, came out of his right shoe and still outran his pursuers before diving to the pylon.
"I may not be the fastest guy, but I'm fast enough if I catch a skinny and somebody is chasing me, I'm still going to try to do whatever it takes to score," Ward said. "To do it with one shoe, I'm not that slow."
Ward's performance in the Georgia Dome was personal satisfaction because he grew up and lives in Forest Park, Ga., approximately three miles from Atlanta, and went to the University of Georgia. Ward had to get 52 tickets to the game for family and friends.
But it ended in extreme disappointment when the Steelers blew leads of 17-7, 24-21 and 31-28 before losing to the Falcons in overtime, 41-38.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
When it comes to speed, many NFL players are faster than the Steelers' Hines Ward, above. But on game days it's a different matter because he's running scared.
Click photo for larger image.
Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette talks to online sports editor Dan Gigler:
"This was a special game," Ward said. "I circled it. I prepared myself. I wanted to make sure, of any game this year, that this game was very big for me, having so many tickets [to get], having so many family and friends. To go back home after winning the Super Bowl, me growing up a Falcons fan, the Falcons were the team that passed me by [in the draft] ... there was a little animosity toward the organization then.
"But it's disappointing we lost the game. That's really what counted. I really wanted to beat the Falcons. I had a great performance, but it means nothing if you don't win the game. That's the bottom line in this business. It kind of took away from the emotional part of it."
And now Ward and the Steelers (2-4) have to regroup, forget about what happened in Atlanta, and get ready for the Oakland Raiders (1-5), where Ward won't be the most famous -- or fastest -- receiver on the field.
The distinction belongs to Randy Moss, the only receiver in NFL history to have more than 1,000 yards receiving in each of his first six years in the league. Ward, though, has more catches (26) than Moss (24), more receiving yards (378-351) and leads the AFC with five touchdown catches.
In addition, 11 of his 26 catches have come on third down, the best percentage (42.3) in the AFC.
"The passing game takes time," Ward said. "The other guys are starting to gain confidence and are playing football. The receivers and quarterback, we go hand in hand. Santonio [Holmes] is starting to come around and evolving, getting more comfortable in the offense; Nate [Washington] is starting to do that. Even Sean [Morey] came in and got a catch.
"There's really a sense of urgency now because, yes, we are 2-4. The little things, the attention to detail, we have to concentrate on and continue to go out and work hard."
Ward's three touchdown catches against the Falcons raised his career total to 57, leaving him just six shy of tying John Stallworth for the most in team history (63). He has caught four in the past two games -- two each from Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch -- and is confident that will continue against the Raiders, no matter which player is at quarterback.
"We don't design our offense around one person," Ward said. "We have our offense, and whatever guy is running that off, we expect him to run it just as well as the next man, and Charlie has done that. We don't change our offense predicated on Ben or Charlie. Both are expected to run the same offense."
Even if neither expects Ward to outrun the NFL's fastest man.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1466.