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Wednesday November 2nd, 2011

Antonio Brown stepped up in Hines Ward's absence against the Patriots, catching 9 passes for 67 yards and a touchdown. (AP)

Hines Ward feels that he could have played last Sunday against the Patriots, despite dealing with an ankle injury. So why didn't he?

Well, according to a comment Ward made to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette, the Steelers didn't need him:

"I probably could have forced it and played but we have some great wideouts, "Ward said. "I wasn't really concerned. And against the Patriots, we felt we could exploit their secondary. That wasn't the same secondary that we played against a year ago without having [James Sanders], [Brandon Meriweather] wasn't back there and they let Leigh Bodden go. We kind of liked our matchups. So there was no need for me to try to force it and go."

This is one of those situations where Ward said what we're all thinking -- the Patriots' secondary stinks -- but it's still surprising to hear a player rip on the opposition, let alone admit that he could have played but didn't.

The fact that the Patriots and Steelers could be on a collision course for a playoff matchup adds a little juice to Ward's comments, too.

New England has the worst pass defense in the league, by a huge margin. The Pats are allowing 323.1 yards per game, 35 yards more than the next worst pass defense, Green Bay (yes, 7-0 Green Bay). Ben Roethlisberger exploited the Patriots' secondary to the tune of 365 yards passing Sunday in Pittsburgh's 25-17 win. He also threw a career-high 32 passes in the first half, as the Steelers came out firing.

The flip side of Ward's comment is that he wasn't missed one little bit by Pittsburgh's offense Sunday. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, the two who benefited most from Ward's absence, combined for 14 catches, 137 yards and a touchdown.

Ward remains a key cog in the Steelers' success, but it's more related to his leadership skills these days than anything. Pittsburgh is in the fortunate position of having one of the deepest receiving corps in the league, giving the Steelers the option of holding a player like Ward out when he's not 100 percent. Of course, assuming he's remotely healthy, Ward figures to play this week against Baltimore. The Ravens have the NFL's third-best pass defense.

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