For 1st time since '98, Ward doesn't lead Steelers

Hines Ward has been the focal point of the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense for so long, it almost seems as if he goes back to the days of Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris.

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.

Ben Roethlisberger has completed about 500 passes to him alone since 2004, all while Ward was breaking nearly every major receiving record in club history.

While Ward remains a starter, the Steelers' offense is fast evolving as the playoffs approach — as evidenced by their 27-3 victory over the Carolina Panthers (2-13) on Thursday night.

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.

Wallace not only has supplanted Holmes — now with the Jets — as the Steelers' deep threat, he's taking Ward's long-held position as the Steelers' go-to receiver.

Coach Mike Tomlin still jokingly refers to Wallace as a "one-trick pony," a reference to Wallace relying mostly on his speed. Roethlisberger argues he's long past that.

"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.

Sanders, a third-round pick from SMU, has supplanted Antwaan Randle El as the No. 3 receiver, although he never got on the field regularly as a receiver until Oct. 17. He had seven catches for 78 yards against the Jets and four for 54 yards against Carolina.

Ward believes the recent shift in emphasis reflects the blanket-type coverage still given him by opposing defenses.

"He (Sanders) is a rookie, he's young," Ward said. "It's the same thing with Mike, they tried to double me and Santonio (in 2009) and Mike took advantage of going against the third cornerback. Emmanuel is starting to do the same thing. The more times they take Mike and me out of the game, that's going to create for opportunities for him. He'll continue to get better, but it's a work in progress."

Since midseason, Roethlisberger has targeted Sanders nearly as many times (43) as he has Ward (45), according to STATS LLC. Sanders has 23 catches and two touchdowns in the last seven games, compared to Ward's 24 catches and no touchdowns. Ward's last touchdown was Nov. 8 in Cincinnati, or eight games ago.

"Ben is believing in me, and it's starting to show," Sanders said.

Just like the Steelers have believed in Ward since he became one of the best third-round draft picks in NFL history.