Hines Ward's ability to make tough catches and willingness to take punishment made him a perfect fit for the Steelers. (Getty Images)
Even though it really came as no surprise, Pittsburgh's announcement that it would release 14-year veteran Hines Ward sent shockwaves through Steelers Nation. Ward is the franchise's all-time leading receiver and, just this past season, became the eighth player in NFL history to reach 1,000 catches.
Without being the fastest or most physically gifted wide receiver, Ward carved out a role perfectly suited to his abilities in Pittsburgh.
And, as a bit of a tribute to Ward's distinguished Steelers career, let's break down how he has been so successful.
Ward's production and playing time dropped way off during the 2011 season -- his 381 yards and two touchdowns were his lowest totals since his rookie year of 1998. But even as his career has made the turn for home, Ward has continued to flash glimpses of his overall game.
We start our look back with a prototypical Ward TD catch, against the Bengals in the 2010 season. Lined up wide right in a four-receiver, shotgun formation, Ward just floated to the middle of the field and made himself available for Ben Roethlisberger.
There are a lot of receivers who are hesitant to go over the middle. Not only does Ward not hesitate to drift into that danger zone, he has always displayed a knack for finding just enough room to make catch after catch.
You can see that highlighted in this TD grab against the Bengals. It was a third-and-goal from the Cincinnati 8, so the defense had sagged a bit toward the goal line, content to give up something underneath. Ward, though, found a soft spot in the coverage and managed to get his defender sealed off on his back hip.
The window was small, but it was enough for Roethlisberger to thread the needle for six.
The Steelers used Ward in just about every way possible -- as a deep threat, as the top option over the middle, and, especially in 2011 as they tried to get him to 1,000 career catches, as the main target on bubble screens.
Some of Ward's best work, though, came when plays broke down, which is why he enjoyed so much success when paired with Roethlisberger, who is as skilled at improvising under pressure as any QB in the league. In another play from the 2010 season, this time Week 7 at Miami, you can get a sense for Ward's ability to simply outthink the defense in order to get open.
On the play, there were three receivers lined up to Roethlisberger's left. Heath Miller, set on the right side of the line, drove to the near sideline, while the running back next to Big Ben also released as a receiving option.
Ward, meanwhile, ran a deep post route down the middle of the field.
Roethlisberger struggled to find anyone open at first -- including Ward, who wound up covered in the middle of Miami's zone by linebacker Karlos Dansby. As Roethlisberger escaped pressure and looked downfield, Dansby closed on Ward.
Feeling that coverage coming, Ward released back upfield and broke to the sideline. By doing that, he was able to leave the slower Dansby in his wake and take advantage of the opening created by Miller and Pittsburgh's back occupying Miami's defense.
Ward came wide open and Roethlisberger delivered a strike for a big gain.
Seattle witnessed first-hand Ward's and Roethlisberger's ability to make things up on the fly during Super Bowl XL. With the Steelers trailing 3-0 and facing a 3rd-and-28 late in the second quarter, Roethlisberger lined up with an empty backfield and five wide receivers. Ward is boxed.
The play turned into a mad scramble -- Roethlisberger ducked out of the pocket to his left, then finally turned to throw after he moved outside the 40-yard number to his left. He uncorked a bomb all the way back across the field to the opposite corner, where Ward was locked up with safety Michael Boulware.
When Roethlisberger let go of the pass, Ward was two yards deep in the end zone and Boulware was in front of him at the goal line. By the time the ball reached the two, Ward had doubled back. In doing so, he managed to work his way inside Boulware. He made a tumbling catch just shy of the goal line, setting up a Roethlisberger 1-yard TD just moments later.
Finally, you cannot talk about Ward without mentioning his blocking ability. Should Ward eventually make it to the Hall of Fame one day, his reputation as one of the NFL's best blocking receivers ever could help him there.
The following photos come from a 2007 game (apologies in advance for these highlights having all the clarity of an alleged Loch Ness Monster photo).
The Steelers were in a more traditional, pro-style set for this particular play, with an I-formation behind Roethlisberger, two tight ends and two wide receivers. They motioned Ward in tight to the right side of the line, essentially making him a third tight end on this run play.
Now, remember, this is a 6-foot, 205-pound receiver ...
After motioning in tight Ward jumped up into a hole between the tight end and right tackle to wipe out a blitzing linebacker.
Ward's knack for blocking -- and total willingness to take on those responsibilities -- made him invaluable for years in Pittsburgh.
Who could forget his punishing block on Cincinnati's Keith Rivers back in 2008? While the hit broke Rivers' jaw and ended his season, there was no penalty called on the play and the NFL did not see any reason to pursue discipline against Ward, deeming the block a clean one.
Roethlisberger dumped a pass off to tight end Matt Spaeth on the play, and Ward came back to destroy an unsuspecting Rivers. Ward's the white blur in the photo below (and, again, apologies for the NFL's pre-2010 highlights having all the HD capabilities of the Zapruder film).
Ward didn't just run interference or try to cut Rivers low. He laid into him with full force, driving his helmet and shoulder directly into Rivers, knocking the Cincinnati linebacker flying off his feet.
Ward absorbed the hit no worse for the wear. While it was just one of hundreds of blocks Ward threw over his Pittsburgh career, it also stands as the perfect example of what a well-rounded weapon he has been.
Pittsburgh's salary cap troubles and Ward's declining skills made their split an understandable one. It may be a long time, however, before the Steelers find another receiver so perfectly suited to playing their style of football.