Ed Bouchette on the Steelers: A weekly look inside the team, issues and questions
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On this corner, the winner and still champion ... Hines Ward
Hines Ward loves knocking people out. He did it again last Sunday when he sent Denver strong safety Nick Ferguson wobbling to the sideline, not once but twice.
Neurosurgeons and his own quarterback may look aghast at what Ward has to say on the subject. He cannot control his glee at delivering a knockout blow. Little brings him more satisfaction, except maybe catching the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.
"I'm doing something nobody's ever done before," Ward said. "You've never seen a receiver knock people out."
Normally, it's the other way around. Just ask Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann, who had many concussions on a football field long before he was knocked out of the race for governor.
Ward knocked Ferguson dizzy on a downfield block last Sunday. The safety returned to the game a few plays later and was knocked out for good with another block. Guard Alan Faneca received public credit for that, but Ward claimed the blow was all his.
"I don't think he's playing this week," Ward correctly reported on Ferguson.
Some Broncos complained this week about the first hit Ward put on Ferguson, but the NFL verified this week what Ward insisted was all within the rules when the league did not dock him with a fine.
"My thing is, they're going to hit you," Ward said. "People get mad because they've never seen a receiver knock people out, that's why people get upset. So I got excited when I knocked the guy out, and I guess some of his teammates got mad. But it was a legal hit, there was nothing I did that was dirty.
"I get excited about that."
It was Ward's second known knockout victim. The other came in Cleveland when he decked Browns' safety Earl Little during a 2001 game the Steelers won, 15-12, in overtime. Ward made the mistake that time of lingering triumphantly over the supine Little and was flagged -- and later fined -- for taunting.
He also once threw a vicious block on Rod Woodson in Baltimore that upset the Ravens' safety to no end.
"I've put some good hits on guys," Ward said. "Rod Woodson, I got a good hit on him."
There's been no payback because unlike many NFL receivers, Ward has not had a concussion during his nine pro seasons. He had one while playing at the University of Georgia.
"I'll play this game until the wheels fall off, if it's meant to be," Ward said.
"When it's my time, it's my time. I'm not going out there playing not to get a concussion."
Slowing down? Not him
Ward hasn't slowed down at age 30, though it was often suggested earlier this season that he was at the beginning of his end. A hamstring injury prevented him from playing a game in the preseason, then he caught just nine passes in the first three games for 99 yards and one touchdown.
Halfway through the season, though, he's ahead of his pace of either 2004 or 2005 with 41 receptions (sixth in the AFC) for 586 yards and five touchdowns (tied for first in the AFC). His 14.3-yard average per catch would be his highest in six seasons and ranks third among the top 13 receivers in the conference.
"When people were saying our receivers weren't having a good year, I took that to heart," Ward said. "That was more a reflection on me as a leader. Instead of griping about getting more attempts, getting more balls thrown, I just kept working my butt off, and it's starting to pay off, yet we're still losing."
Ward compared his situation on a running team to that of Chad Johnson's on the Bengals. Johnson has one fewer catch than Ward, averages 2 yards less a catch and has scored three fewer touchdowns.
"You take Chad Johnson, he's [griping] about his attempts and opportunities," Ward said. "That's what I've been through my whole career.
"You're only as good as your attempts. We all want the ball more. But going around complaining about it isn't going to do us any good."
They'd much rather be a team on the run each week
The Steelers are running less, enjoying it less.
They have run 42.7 percent of the time this season, compared to 57.2 percent last year and 61.1 percent in 2004.
Coach Bill Cowher publicly pronounced in 2004 that he was returning to his philosophy of running the ball first and admitted that he became enamored too much with his passing offense in 2003. That year, the Steelers went 6-10 after running 43.7 percent of the time -- a percentage point higher than they're running this season.
There may be no correlation between running the ball and having success, although evidence of the past four Steelers seasons, including this one, would say there is. It might be skewed this year because the Steelers have fallen behind more often and are trying to throw to catch up.
They haven't fallen that far behind in any of their games, though, other than the quick, 14-0 deficit to Denver last Sunday.
Their stated goal is to split 50-50 between running and passing plays. In six of their eight games this season, they've passed the ball more than run with it. Over the past three games, they've run just 34.6 percent of the time.
First Published November 12, 2006 12:00 am