WRs keep foes constantly wary of trick plays

DETROIT -- Not only is Super Bowl XL likely Jerome Bettis' final NFL game, but it will likely be Antwaan Randle El's last as a Steeler. Randle El will become an unrestricted free agent in March and a hot item on the open market.

Just think about how impressive it is for a 5-foot-10 former college quarterback to grow to the point where he's got more than a handful of teams eager for the chance to sign him. Then again, Randle El's transition seems to be par for the course in Pittsburgh, where under coach Bill Cowher, the Steelers haven't hesitated to think outside the box when it comes to maximizing a player's versatility.

Remember, Kordell Stewart was an option quarterback at Colorado and then became "Slash" (as in, quarterback/wide receiver/running back) before he quarterbacked the Steelers full-time from 1997 to 2001. (Did you know he passed for the second-most yards in franchise history, behind Terry Bradshaw?) And Hines Ward was an all-purpose player at Georgia before he came to Pittsburgh and developed into one of the top (and the toughest) receivers in football.

Whereas most teams have weapons at wide receiver, the Steelers have Swiss Army knives. Ward's and Randle El's versatility have helped make coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, like predecessors Chan Gailey and Mike Mularkey, look like an offensive wizard. When you've got players who have big bags of tricks, you can execute trick plays. Ward and Randle El have the ability to line up outside, inside, in the backfield to receive a direct snap, or even under center. Defenses must always be on the lookout for options, reverses, passes off reverses or, as the Bengals saw in their wild-card game against Pittsburgh, a direct snap to Randle El, who sprinted out to the right, threw back across the field to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who fired it downfield to Cedrick Wilson for a touchdown.

"What we've tried to do," Whisenhunt said, "is identify what the players' strengths are, and then try to put them in situations that best fit them. We haven't tried to fit the square peg in the round hole. We've adjusted the offense based on what we thought those guys could do."

And based on Randle El's résumé, he clearly can do numerous things.
He left the University of Indiana as the only player in NCAA Division I-A history to pass for 6,000 yards and rush for 3,000, as well as the only 40-40 guy (40 touchdown passes, 40 touchdowns scored).

"Recruiting and scouting, [the Steelers] do a great job of that," Randle El said. "Not just getting versatile guys, but athletes, and then putting guys in the right spots."

Pittsburgh isn't the place for a No. 2 receiver who wants to approach 70 catches or 1,000 yards or 10 touchdowns (although in 2002, the Steelers morphed into a passing team and produced two 1,000-yard receivers). Though his 69 catches were his fewest in five seasons, Ward just missed (975) his fifth straight 1,000-yard season. Meanwhile, Randle El, though a full-time starter for the first time this year, caught the fewest balls of his career -- 35, good for third on the team and four grabs behind rookie tight end Heath Miller -- and had one touchdown catch during the regular season.

Pittsburgh's game plan every week is to get ahead early and to literally run out the clock in the second half, meaning fewer opportunities for Ward and Randle El in the passing game. Although that makes it difficult for them to compete for league's receiving crowns, both are as complete a pair of receivers as you'll find. Ward is the best blocking receiver in the league. He and Randle El certainly are unselfish. You have to be, to play the position for Pittsburgh.

"It's a little bit of give-and-take from both standpoints," Whisenhunt said. "They're willing to get in there and block in the run game, do some of the things that aren't fun as a receiver. And in turn, we certainly can set some things up in the pass game that are offshoots of that. We've been able to be successful because they've bought into the fact that, 'I'll do what I have to do in the run game,' and we're able to do [things] in the pass game that help give them the crumbs that they need.

"The perfect example of that is Hines, and certainly Randle El has bought into that. Here's a guy [Ward] that goes in and blocks his ass off, and then because of that, you can send him in like he's blocking, and then send him down the field and hit him for a big throw."

Said Randle El, "You can really get off if you focus on numbers. Where you compare yourself to other guys who you know aren't as good as you, that kind of thing. You have to get away from the numbers and focus on making the plays when you have the opportunity. That's what matters, when you get your opportunities that you take full advantage of it. You can have 40 catches, but if you're thrown to 40 times, that's the most important thing."

Not that it's been easy.

"I don't know about Hines and everybody else, but going from quarterback in college -- as much as I touched the ball -- and not only not touching the ball as much, but playing a backup role, that was the toughest part," said Randle El, who has also made himself into a dangerous kickoff and punt returner (four career return touchdowns). "I went from having the ball every play and deciding who got the ball and trying to spread the ball around and going to I don't have a call, I don't make the decisions."

Seeing a little of himself in Randle El, Ward, a third-round pick in 1998, became a mentor to him when the Steelers took him in the second round of the 2002 draft.

"He was so raw, that's what people were saying," Ward recalled. "He was a 'jack of all trades but a master of none.' But yet he's developed into an explosive ballplayer, and any time he touches that ball, he can make a big play."

The Steelers lost deep threat Plaxico Burress to free agency after last year and yet the passing game didn't miss a beat -- except when Roethlisberger missed four games with injuries, and Randle El served as the backup quarterback when Pittsburgh was short at the position. The Steelers led the league in average gain per completion at 8.9. Ward was right when he pointed out that his and Randle El's yards per catch averages increased from last season to this season, while Wilson averages 17.3 yards per catch.

"I think we proved a lot of naysayers and doubters wrong," Ward said, "and being that we are the last team in the league in pass attempts [379] speaks volumes about our passing game, our receivers and our quarterback."

Perhaps one of the reasons why Roethlisberger, who has been the starter since Week 3 of his rookie season, has been able to assimilate to the pro game so quickly is that he has receivers who think as he does, given their collegiate quarterback experience. For what it's worth, Roethlisberger was a varsity wide receiver as a junior at Findlay (Ohio) High. "We both understand the other side, and it helps us to feel where the other guys is coming from," Roethlisberger said.

"I know the game as well as most coordinators do," Ward said, "and that's because of playing all the positions. I can get back there and line up and be the third-down running back if I wanted to."

Surely, it'll only be a matter of time before we see that, too.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.