Hines Ward's reduced status does not look as though it will change any time soon, which begs this question: Are we watching the final games of the brilliant career of the Steelers most prolific and decorated receiver?
That is, if the coaches see fit to play him.
Coach Mike Tomlin demoted Ward from the starting job he had held since 1999 for the Nov. 13 game at Cincinnati. Then, Tomlin buried him a little deeper on the depth chart while he was at it, dropping Ward behind Jerricho Cotchery to No. 4 for that game.
Ward caught one pass for 10 yards against the Bengals and played only a handful of downs. Antonio Brown, another bright light on a young receiving corps, started in place of Ward and led the Steelers with 86 yards on five receptions. Brown has moved into the ninth spot among AFC receivers in receptions (44) and yards (626), giving the team two in the conference's top 10. Mike Wallace ranks fourth in receptions (53) and second in yards (922).
Ward ranks fourth on the team with 27 receptions and 268 yards.
Wallace and Brown have a chance to become only the fourth Steelers duo to eclipse 1,000 yards in the same season. Ward was half of the pair who did it the previous three times.
But Ward's days may be numbered and could end one year before his stated goal to finish out his contract in 2012 if Tomlin's actions Nov. 13 and his words Tuesday were any indication.
The coach provided Ward with no comforting words that his status will change from the one that provided him little playing time in Cincinnati. Asked Tuesday about Ward's role, Tomlin again was noncommittal.
"That is to be determined," Tomlin said at his weekly news conference. "Of course, that is what we are doing on days like today, as we formulate our game plan and try to play to our strengths and minimize our weakness. I am not in a position to answer that at this time.
"Obviously, Hines is a very capable man, as are some others. We will do what is best in terms of giving us an opportunity to win this game."
No one can blame Tomlin and his staff for playing those they believe give them the best chance to win, and the move in Cincinnati came long after the matter was discussed internally. The coaches believe Brown and Cotchery give them a better chance to win than having Ward in the equation.
Once Emmanuel Sanders returns to the lineup, he also could move ahead of Ward. Sanders had 18 receptions for 243 yards before missing the past two games with a knee injury that required surgery 16 days ago.
Ward needs 30 yards to become the 19th receiver in history to reach 12,000. He needs 19 catches to become only the eighth receiver in NFL history to have 1,000. Catching 19 passes in six games as the No. 4 or No. 5 receiver would be a tall order.
He holds virtually every Steelers receiving record, has made more Pro Bowls (four) than any receiver in team history and was MVP of Super Bowl XL.
Crucial shortage of turnovers
Several Steelers mentioned lately they were not satisfied with their 7-3 record. Their coach said they should consider themselves lucky it is that good.
"We are probably fortunate to be a 7-3 football team being minus-10 in the turnover ratio," Tomlin said. "That is what jumps out at me. We have to continue to do a better job of getting the football, particularly in significant moments defensively."
It is not so much that the team has lost 16 turnovers but that the defense has grabbed only six -- two fumbles, four interceptions. That puts them on a dubious record pace for their franchise in all instances. Four players in the league have more interceptions than the Steelers team; one, New England cornerback Kyle Arrington, nearly has double that amount with seven.
The Steelers forced 35 turnovers last season.
"I think it is realistic to anticipate that we are capable of producing turnovers," Tomlin said.
Roger, over and out
Tomlin called his meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last week "very productive." The coach and Steelers president Art Rooney met with Goodell Thursday in New York, along with a handful of other NFL executives in charge of doling out fines to players for infractions on the field.
"We exchanged some ideas. I think the meeting was born out of a conversation between Art and the commissioner. They thought it would be productive for all of us to sit down and talk. I thought it was very productive."
Tomlin expressed his support in a statement for safety Ryan Clark, who was fined $40,000 by the NFL for a hit in the Baltimore game. The coach called the fine "excessive." Tomlin, Clark said, had used the hit the day after the game to show his players what a good, clean hit looked like.
"It's not a problem. It really isn't," Tomlin said about the fine line in determining what are legal and illegal hits. "There are frustrations that present themselves in every season, at least in every season that I have been a part of in this league. That's what comes with competing. You communicate, you learn from it, you move forward. That is what we have done and that is what we continue to do."
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who missed the past two games with a hamstring injury, will be "limited" this week in practice, and his status for the game Sunday in Kansas City will be determined daily as the week progresses, Tomlin said.
Woodley led the AFC with nine sacks after eight games before he was injured.
Tomlin issued reports on other injured Steelers:
• Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is expected to play despite a broken right thumb.
• Safety Troy Polamalu, slowed last week by rib discomfort, is expected to play.
• Receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who had surgery on his knee two weeks ago, practiced Monday and is "working his way back," according to Tomlin.
• Safety Arnaz Battle has a right hamstring injury that will be evaluated as the week progresses.