Hines Ward still thriving for Steelers at 35

Hines Ward doesn’t know where it comes from, really.

The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver doesn’t have many theories

either. He can’t tell you why he leapt over Tennessee’s Michael

Griffin at the goal line during the third quarter to score his

second touchdown of the day in Pittsburgh’s easier than expected

38-17 rout.

Maybe it was instinct. Maybe it was the memory of pulling a

similar move over Denver’s Champ Bailey a few years ago. Maybe it

was the residual effects of all that nifty footwork he displayed

while winning ”Dancing With the Stars” during the spring.

Ward doesn’t know and to be honest, he doesn’t care.

”I can’t put a finger on what made me do that,” Ward said,

”but just to do that and to be able to help this team get going,

that’s all that matters.”

That’s all that’s ever mattered to the 35-year-old Ward, even as

his career numbers have reached staggering heights.

The 14-year veteran needs 13 yards against Jacksonville on

Sunday to surpass Hall-of-Famer Michael Irvin for 19th on the

all-time list. He’s 108 yards away from becoming just the 18th

receiver to reach the 12,000-yard plateau and is 26 catches away

from 1,000.

Heady numbers for any receiver, astronomical ones for a player

on franchise that has built its foundation – and six Super Bowl

championships – on running the ball.

It’s an onus that isn’t lost on Ward, arguably one of the

greatest blocking receivers in history. He’s never hesitated to

stick his 6-foot, 205-pound frame in the face of a linebacker in

hopes of creating a seam for a back. His blue collar work ethic in

a decidedly white collar position has endeared him to one of the

NFL’s most ardent fan bases and made him one of the team’s

unquestioned leaders.

One who took it upon himself to help the Steelers break out of

an early season funk. Ward sat quietly at his locker a week ago

after the team fell to 2-2 with a decisive loss at Houston and

stressed there was no need to point fingers, adding there was more

than enough blame to go around.

He then responded with a vintage performance, grabbing seven

passes for 54 yards and his first two score game in two years. His

7.7 yards per reception is deceiving. Six of his seven catches went

for first downs or touchdowns, including his balletic dive over

Griffin that gave the Steelers a 28-3 lead in the third

quarter.

”That’s Hines,” fellow wide receiver Antonio Brown said.

”He’s passionate. He’s tough. He’s a guy you can learn from

because he’s been doing it at a high level for so long.”

Ward has accepted a somewhat diminished role in the offense with

typical grace. Third-year speedster Mike Wallace is developing into

one of the top deep threats in the game. Brown and Emmanuel Sanders

are younger and quicker. Tight end Heath Miller remains a favorite

of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, particularly in the red

zone.

Yet with the season at a critical point, Roethlisberger turned

to the guy that’s been a dutiful security blanket for whoever has

been under center since he joined the team in 1998. Kordell

Stewart. Tommy Maddox. Mike Tomczak. Charlie Batch. Byron Leftwich.

Whenever it’s third-and-6 there’s been little doubt where the ball

is heading.

”I always pride myself on being the guy that Ben and this

organization can lean your hat on, to be the dependable guy to go

out and make play,” Ward said.

Though he knows his window is closing, don’t think it’s close to

being shut.

”I can’t change my age, I know I’m 35,” Ward said. ”That’s

the story but for me it’s just a matter of just staying

healthy.”

And Ward says he’s never felt better. While his teammates sat at

home during the NFL lockout wondering when they’d get back to work,

Ward was cha-chaing his way to the mirror ball trophy on ”Dancing

With the Stars.”

He’s reluctant to say all that two-stepping helped his footwork,

but it certainly didn’t hurt. The glow of the victory, however, was

tarnished by his arrest on a DUI charge in July. He apologized for

the distraction but maintains his innocence.

If the arrest is a distraction, it doesn’t show. He’s on pace to

top 60 receptions for the 11th time in his career, something

Steeler greats John Stallworth and Lynn Swann combined to do five

times, though Ward is quick to point out they have four Super Bowl

rings and he has just two.

How many more rings, catches and well-choreographed touchdown

dances does Ward have left? He’s not sure. Ward is signed through

2013, when he’ll be 37. If he stays injury free, he can see himself

playing beyond that, though he cautions he won’t stick around along

as fellow ”Dancing With the Stars” alum Jerry Rice, who was

catching passes until he was 42.

”I won’t play that long, trust me,” Ward said. ”I take it one

year at a time. When I look up and I’m going against a guy that I’m

supposed to be getting open against all the time and I’m not, I’ll

walk away from the game.”