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Hines Ward: 'Huge drop-off' among wide receivers after Antonio Brown could hurt Steelers

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Antonio Brown has become a household name across the NFL landscape, but ex-Steelers WR Hines Ward thinks it's the depth behind Brown that could doom the Steelers down the stretch.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown is among the elite wide-outs in the NFL today. Such a fact is well known in league circles but, according to ex-Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, the depth behind Brown is what could plague the Steelers' chances of making the postseason in 2014.

"It's just a huge drop off to the next guy that I don't know if the Steelers can get to where they want to go if you don't have a counterpart on the opposite side," Ward said Thursday after the taping of the "Hines Ward Show" via Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

The Steelers' depth at wide receiver has improved as the season has progressed. At the beginning of 2014, Justin Brown was counted on to be the primary slot-receiver, while Markus Wheaton handled the duties opposite Brown.

Twelve games into the season, Justin Brown is a regular on the inactive list, Wheaton has caught 41 passes for 503 yards and two touchdowns and Martavis Bryant has burst onto the NFL scene with 17 catches for 344 and six touchdowns.

Those numbers pale in comparison to Antonio Brown's 96 catches for 1,258 yards and 11 touchdowns, but with a player as dynamic as Brown running routes, why wouldn't you target him 135 times as the Steelers have done so far this season?

Ward's comments are geared toward the fact that better teams in the AFC will be able to take away Brown, in which case the Steelers would be left with less-than-stellar options at their disposal.

"They aren't going to let Antonio Brown be a factor in the game," Ward said. "You need somebody on the other side to be a consistent presence."

Ward speaks the truth in relation to the wide-receiver corps, but something he isn't taking into account is how the Steelers spread the ball around offensively.

After Brown, the next three receivers on the Steelers' roster all have over 500 yards receiving and account for six touchdowns. Pittsburgh's top-3 receivers after Brown are Le'Veon Bell, Heath Miller and Wheaton.

Compare the Steelers' depth at wide receiver to the high-powered Denver Broncos' offense, and you'll see Demaryius Thomas with 1,255 yards, Emmanuel Sanders with 1,152 yards and the next receiver on the list hasn't reached 500 yards after 12 games.

The top-3 receivers from the Broncos have accumulated 2,833 yards receiving in 2014, while the Steelers have reached 2,484 yards. This isn't too far off of the highly-touted Peyton Manning machine at Mile High.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' offense is capable of beating opponents in a variety of ways. It could be with Antonio Brown, or it could be utilizing Le'Veon Bell out of the backfield. Both have been shown to work equally well in 2014.

Ward's comments directly point more to the youth at the wide-receiver position, Bryant being a rookie and Wheaton a second-year pro, than the quality at the position. One thing is certain, however, the Steelers will need more production from this wide-receiver unit to make a stretch-run in the month of December in hopes of a playoff berth.