Monday, September 1, 2008
Steelers' Holmes aims for his first 1,000-yard season
By James Walker ESPN.com
Steelers WR Santonio Holmes knows exactly what he wants to accomplish in 2008.
LATROBE, Pa.--The NFL leader in yards per catch last season was not New England Patriots receiver Randy Moss.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' reception yards and touchdown leader wasn't Hines Ward.
To the surprise of many, the owner of these three accolades is Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes, who quietly has developed into one of the most feared deep threats and respected young receivers in the NFL.
Coming off a 52-catch, 942-yard season in 2007, Holmes is just scratching the surface of his potential. That is why Holmes is ESPN.com's pick as the breakout player in the AFC North for the 2008 season.
"I don't like to jinx myself, and I don't want to sound too over the edge,'' Holmes told ESPN.com. "But everything that I've gotten my hands on, if I have a pen around, I've written '1,200-plus yards' on it.
"That's just something that I'm setting myself up for, because I've never had a 1,000-yard season before."
Indeed, the elusive 1,000-yard season has escaped Holmes for his entire football career. He's never reached that milestone in four years at Glades Central High School (Fla.), three seasons at Ohio State University, or his first two years in the pros.
But twice Holmes has gained more than 900 yards -- once with the Steelers last season and also during his junior year with the Buckeyes. He was only 23 yards shy of the landmark with Ohio State in 2005, which was his final collegiate season before entering the NFL draft.
"We threw enough [at Ohio State] where I should have had 1,000 yards," Holmes said disappointedly. "I know I left a lot of plays on the field. In high school, we always had two or three great running backs."
But Holmes appears primed to get what he's been aiming for in 2008. The Steelers are favorites to win the AFC North, have one of the NFL's top quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger, and at age 24, Holmes is starting to learn the mental side of the NFL as he begins to enter the prime of his career.
Holmes' numbers have increased steadily with Pittsburgh. Last year he improved his receptions, yards, touchdowns and yards per catch compared to his rookie season. But Holmes did not rest on his laurels this offseason.
While many players were vacationing this summer, Holmes was in Orlando, Fla., with several Steelers teammates working with a personal trainer to improve his speed, quickness and agility.
Holmes believes improving in those three categories will give him an added burst, which could be the difference in turning a routine play into a big gain. Last year he missed three games -- including two in late November and early December -- because of an ankle injury.
But through minicamp and training camp, Holmes was healthy again, and has been the toughest receiver for Pittsburgh's defense to cover.
"Santonio wants to be great, and he wants to do what's required to be great," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "He came [to camp] in absolute awesome physical condition. He's in great shape, he's a good worker, he's very vocal and can communicate with younger receivers, older receivers -- both sides. We expect great things from him, and I think he expects great things from himself."
Teammate and fellow receiver Nate Washington said Holmes "was just playing and trying to get on the field" when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 2006. Now, Washington also notices an improved focus and work ethic with Holmes.
"He's a kid that's definitely striving to be one of the best," Washington said. "This game is all about the mental. If you settle for what you're already doing, then you're already going to be done. But he's definitely a guy that hasn't settled for less. He's been steady in working to get to the top."
Ward, an 11-year veteran, led the Steelers with 71 receptions last year. He remains the team's No. 1 option, but Holmes is quickly pushing for that top role in Pittsburgh's offense with his steady improvement. The difference is, Holmes admits, he hasn't made as many routine plays as he would have liked in his first two seasons.
Holmes has developed a reputation as a "big-play receiver," and his 18.1 yards per catch last season certainly warrants that label. But what separates the good receivers from the elite receivers is the ability to make all the plays at the position -- big or small.
Holmes had the tendency to drop some passes during his first two seasons, and most of his drops have been during easier, shorter routes. He believes that is the next step in his maturity as an NFL receiver.
"I don't want to be one of those receivers that people look at as just making a big catch," Holmes said. "I want to be the guy that's going to make every catch and finish every play -- whether that's being the short passes or stretching the field on the deep balls."
Eyeing a 1,200-yard season and back-to-back division titles for the first time in his career, Holmes expects great things in 2008. When asked for his thoughts on being picked as ESPN.com's breakout player in the AFC North, he nodded in agreement with the logic.
Now, in his third season, it's time for Holmes to carry out his immense potential and make it a reality.
"I've been on the rise," Holmes said. "The numbers have been productive year in and year out. Everything has been on the rise, and I don't want this following year to be a fall-off year.''
James Walker covers the NFL for ESPN.com.