Ward has been the Steelers‘ leading receiver every season since he tied for the team lead with Troy Edwards in 1999, a testament to longevity in a sport where many players’ careers are over before they reach their 30s.
Roethlisberger more often looks toward receivers Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Heath Miller when he needs key yardage, only a year after he was targeting Ward, Santonio Holmes and Miller on such plays.
Unless Ward has a big game against the Browns on Jan. 2, Wallace will finish as the team’s leading receiver. That would be something of a culture shock for the Steelers (11-4), considering Ward has led them in receptions every year since their next-to-last season in Three Rivers Stadium.
“It’s a matter of opportunities,” said the 34-year-old Ward, who doesn’t believe his career is winding down. “The other guys are getting a lot of opportunities and they’re capitalizing on them.”
The Jets showed respect for Ward, whose twin skills as a possession receiver and a blocker still aren’t rivaled by another NFL receiver. They shadowed him with star cornerback Darrelle Revis for much of their 22-17 win on Sunday, a tactic that apparently reflected their opinion Ward is Pittsburgh’s most-dangerous receiver.
But with the season nearly over and the Steelers only one victory or a Ravens loss away from winning the AFC North, the numbers are telling: Ward has had three catches or fewer six times since midseason.
With 54 catches for 710 yards and four touchdowns, Ward is headed for his least-productive season since he caught 48 passes during his second season as a starter in 2000.
By comparison, Wallace has 57 catches for 1,152 yards and nine touchdowns, with six 100-yard games _ one off Hall of Famer John Stallworth’s team record. Wallace had 11 catches for 206 yards and a touchdown against the Jets and Panthers, compared to Ward’s five catches for 72 yards.
“I told him (against Carolina) he did something I’ve been waiting for him to do and that was on a deep ball, come back to it,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s something a lot of speed guys can’t always do.”
Of course, Ward has made such catches for years. But it was evident during the Steelers‘ failed final drive against the Jets on Sunday, when they drove the length of the field before stalling at the 9-yard line on two final Roethlisberger incompletions, that the quarterback was looking for Wallace and Sanders and his tight end more than Ward.