After the Pittsburgh Steelers were bounced from this year's playoffs by the Denver Broncos last Sunday afternoon, speculation immediately began about Hines Ward. Was he going to retire? Had he played his last game in a Steelers uniform? Ward insists that he is not retiring, and he's made it clear that he understands the need to restructure his contract in order to return for his 15th season in Pittsburgh.
Even so, some wonder if the Steelers should bring him back. At 34 years old, Ward is definitely in the twilight of his career, but I don't think anything about this season necessarily suggests he can't still play. Ward finished the season with 46 catches for 381 yards and 2 TDs. His 8.3 yards per reception were the lowest of his NFL career. However, Ward caught an impressive 73 percent of the passes thrown his way. His catch rate was easily the highest amongst Steelers wide receivers. Mike Wallace's catch rate was 63 percent, 56 percent for Antonio Brown, while Emmanuel Sanders only hauled in 51 percent of the passes thrown his way.
I'd need to go back and watch the tapes again, but obviously a healthy percentage of Ward's 46 receptions came in the form of bubble screens. And yes, I was as frustrated by those play calls at times as you were. But the fact of the matter is those plays are essentially an extension of the running game, and some of the few plays where Roethlisberger wasn't in regularly under pressure or sacked frequently. In fact, I'd guess that he was never sacked on those types of quick-hitting horizontal passing plays.
More on this after re-watching the games and isolating Ward's receptions, but to me, the numbers are pretty clear. Ward was still a viable offensive weapon when his number was called. Three out of four times that the ball was thrown his way, Ward made the catch. And on average, those connections went for just over 8 yards per pop. Not staggering productivity by any stretch of the imagination, but for a team that struggled to protect the quarterback or run the ball consistently, perhaps it would have behooved Bruce Arians and Big Ben to utilize Ward more regularly, even at the expense of the spectacular, big play down the field.
Obviously Ward can't be targeted too much for the simple reason that he's not able to create enough separation on many routes down the field. But Ward knows he can still work the soft spot of zones and use his savvy to get a half step on defensive backs in the short passing game. Again, it may not be spectacular, but it would help keep Big Ben upright and healthy, the chains moving at a more steady clip, and presumably help the defense by shortening the game slightly and minimizing the veteran group's exposure to wear and tear over the course of a long season.