CANTON, Ohio – A couple months ago, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were buzzing about the new looks installed by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, wide receiver Hines Ward made a declaration: If the wideouts didn't hold up their end of the bargain this season, Arians and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would be failures.
"If we don't work," Ward said, "the rest don't work."
The statement wasn't the typical egomaniacal thinking that tends to infect wide receivers. If anything, Ward's logic was pragmatic. Roethlisberger's 2006 failures were dotted with miscues from a receiving corps that was remarkably inconsistent despite forging the ninth-best passing offense in the league. Beyond Ward, who wasn't healthy most of the season, a reliable big-play No. 2 never materialized.
Some would point to Santonio Holmes, who had 824 receiving yards, but he wasn't a reliable red-zone option. Nate Washington's unreliable hands negated his vast physical gifts. Cedrick Wilson, who has teased with big-play ability since arriving in 2005, regressed. Even Heath Miller's production dropped off significantly.
Developing an effective trio from that group might be Arians' second-toughest task, next to keeping Roethlisberger on an even keel with his added duties at the line of scrimmage. But with much of the offense's success depending on the receivers' ability to, as first-year head coach Mike Tomlin puts it, "chunk" yardage (that is, sustain multiple plays of 20-plus yards in every game), the onus will fall on both coordinator and quarterback to help make that happen.
In 2005, the Steelers' top four receivers cranked out 36 catches of 20-plus yards and 12 of 40-plus. In 2006, Pittsburgh's top four notched 41 catches of 20-plus and nine of 40-plus. The numbers don't look remarkably different, but when the coaching staff factored that Roethlisberger threw 201 more passes in 2006, it was clear the team's big-play ratio had fallen off drastically.
"A lot of it is consistency," Holmes said Sunday, after catching a touchdown pass in a 20-7 win over New Orleans in the Hall of Fame game. "That's what this preseason is about. Other than that, we're not going to get caught up in what's going on right now – people saying the offense is playing well and all that."
By all accounts, Arians' ideology of spreading the field is taking hold. The offense has been making big plays during training camp practices, and some of the second-tier receivers are showing signs of development. In turn, Roethlisberger is having arguably the best camp of his career.
A taste of that came against the Saints, when Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offense went 80 yards in six plays – much of it through the hands of Wilson, who caught a 55-yard pass on the second play from scrimmage and an 18-yard snag in the middle of the field as Roethlisberger scrambled. Most impressive, the Steelers engineered the drive without starting running back Willie Parker, who was an injury scratch, and without going to Ward.
"We've hit some chunks and some big plays," Tomlin said. "We've moved the ball pretty efficiently, particularly with our first and second units. That wasn't a surprise at all."
The two big plays to Wilson were textbook examples of what Arians' scheme stresses in the relationship between Roethlisberger and his receiving corps – let the smaller, quicker players work shorter routes and seek the big play when cracks develop in the defense. On Wilson's 55-yard catch, Roethlisberger used play action to freeze the Saints' safeties while Wilson blew by cornerback Fred Thomas. And on Wilson's 18-yard grab, Roethlisberger operated out of shotgun, a look that will be more frequent under Arians' direction.
"What Bruce is doing is going to help the receivers like Cedrick and Santonio," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "You're getting it out on time, quickly. We're still going to look for it deep, but the idea is to let those guys do some more with the ball on their own and that suits their talents very well."
Added Arians, "I just think we're trying to do what we do best. Cedrick and Santonio are smaller guys – quicker. Cedrick has been really solid all offseason, so it's nice to see him have a good performance like he did tonight, make a big play like that."
The battle between Wilson and Holmes is one of the more interesting training-camp undercurrents. Wilson lost his starting job to Holmes late last season, a demotion that seems to grind on the veteran. But Holmes missed most of the first week of camp recovering from an offseason surgery, and that opened the door for Wilson, who has been more vocal about becoming a focal point of the offense and created some drama last week when he complained about his role to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"I can't help if the quarterback doesn't throw me the ball," Wilson told the paper. "I'm running my routes, I'm doing the right things. You can't help if the quarterback doesn't throw you the ball."
Some took that as a shot at Roethlisberger, who pulled Wilson aside before Sunday's game and said, "Be ready. I'm coming to you."
And Roethlisberger did go to Wilson. After the game, the receiver insisted his comments were about taking his place as a fixture in the scheme, and not about Roethlisberger.
"He took it the right way," Wilson said. "You hope that as a receiver. But at the same time, who doesn't want the football? I just expressed my frustration because I was frustrated a little bit. He gave me an opportunity (against the Saints) and I'm happy for it."
It was an opportunity he wanted last season, but felt reluctant to approach Roethlisberger after the quarterback's tumultuous offseason which included a serious motorcycle accident.
"Last year, you come into the season and he went through a lot," Wilson said. "So you don't want to go to him after all the things that he went through last season and stress him out even more. But I just felt like this season could be the time for me. I'm going into my seventh season. I feel I'm in the best shape of my life. I feel like I'm at that point where I can put our offense on my shoulders."
That is, if he can move himself in front of Holmes. The 2006 first-round pick is listed ahead of Wilson on the depth chart, but is working back into playing shape after his surgery. While it seems unlikely Holmes will relinquish his spot, the coaching staff still looks at Wilson as a player who can revisit 2005, when he was able to stretch the field in a more limited role.
"Ced's a guy who is capable of making plays," Tomlin said. "We called his number a few times (against the Saints) and he delivered. That's what it is. It's not necessarily about the number of opportunities that you get, it's about what you do when you get them."
For the second wave, those opportunities should be as plentiful as last season. All that remains is achieving the consistency that eluded the group.
"We threw a long ball on second down," Ward pointed out. "We threw a fade in the end zone on a second down, too. The old Steelers would have just pounded it. Bruce believes in his players. He'll put his trust in Ben and the receivers and let them do it."
- Bruce Arians