If you’re keeping a close eye on the Steelers passing offense, something may have jumped out from last Saturday’s Lions game — Pittsburgh is keeping Hines Ward at home.
One of the first stories we posted here at the Lounge was a look at what Santonio Holmes’ departure would mean to Mike Wallace. What we found was that Wallace faced starting cornerbacks on most passes thrown his way last year, so that wouldn’t really change this year. But it was equally concerning that Ward could be asked to slide back outside in three wide receiver sets, which would make life tougher for the Steelers’ veteran receiver. After beating up on nickel backs, linebackers and safeties over the middle, it would be worrisome to see Ward give up what’s proven to be a great role for him.
It’s pretty simple, whoever plays inside in the slot (or the “F” in the Steelers verbiage) gets to line up against nickel backs and (occasionally) linebackers. If you’re on the outside (the “X” or “Z”), you end up matched up (usually) against starting cornerbacks.
When the Steelers are in a two wide receiver set, Wallace was the split end (“X”) while Ward was the flanker (“Z”). That was to be expected — flanker is the position Ward’s always played. Also split end is the role Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes filled before Wallace, so it’s logical that Wallace would take the role that involves more deep routes and the occasional bomb.
When the Steelers went to a three-wide receiver set on Saturday things changed: Ward lined up in the slot with Wallace coming to his side while Randle El flanked out wide on the other side of the line of scrimmage. For Wallace and Ward, those are the same roles they predominantly filled last year, and it’s a sign that the Steelers are more focused on getting Ward into situations where he can succeed than using Antwaan Randle El in his best role.
During the first half of Ward’s career, there was never a real reason for him to play in the slot. Courtney Hawkins (1999), Bobby Shaw (2000-2001) and Randle El (2002-2004) were exactly the kind of receivers the Steelers like to put in the slot — agile with OK top-end speed but plenty of ability to find holes underneath.
But when Burress left and Ward started getting older, the Steelers began moving him around more in 2005. Ward still remained primarily an outside receiver in ’05-’06 as Nate Washington and Wilson occupied the slot role, but he did get a chance to do some more moving around. The Steelers frequent use of bunch formations also gave Ward more chances to line up inside.
By 2007, Ward had become the regular “F” receiver in three wide receiver sets, which made sense since the Steelers other two main receivers, Washington and Holmes, weren’t as comfortable running the routes over the middle and didn’t have Ward’s ability to block down on linebackers and defensive ends. At the same time, both of them had more straightline speed, which made them a better fit for the outside receiver spots.
I was worried that the return of Randle El would change those plans, because if Ward is best playing in the slot, it’s virtually Randle El’s only role at this point. (I spot checked six of Randle El’s biggest plays over the past two years with the Redskins, all passes over 20 yards, and all of them came out of the slot.) But against the Lions, Randle El played at Holmes’ old spot flanked out wide while Ward lined up to the inside of Wallace on the other side of the formation.
It was only four snaps because the Steelers’ first team played so little, but it was true on each one of those four snaps. When Ward left the game, Randle El played Ward’s split end spot in two wide receiver sets, and Randle El moved inside into the slot (Ward’s spot) with Wallace on his outside in three wide receiver sets.
If the Steelers decide to stick with this formation, it’s a pretty shrewd move. There should be few concerns about what Wallace can do in that role — it’s the same role he filled in three-wide sets last year. And keeping Ward in the slot puts him in position to make the kind of drive-extending catches that are as much a part of his resume as crack-back blocks on unsuspecting Ravens’ defensive backs.
But there is one problem with this plan: Randle El really doesn’t have any business lining up at the split end spot in a three-wide look. He won’t strike fear in cornerbacks and teams won’t be rolling a safety over to his side (he has one 40+ yard catch and 10 20+ yard catches in the past two seasons). That would be a problem if Randle El held the job all year, but it seems like just another indication that one of the Steelers rookies (both of whom have the speed to keep defenses honest) will be filling that role before too long. And if that’s the case, the decision to keep Ward and Wallace together could be a very wise one.