Hines Ward's role diminishing

PITTSBURGH -- Hines Ward is well aware of the milestones within his reach. The ones that could lead him to the Hall of Fame.

The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver is 19 receptions away from 1,000. He's 30 yards away from 12,000. He always imagined he'd reach both while playing for the only team that's ever signed his paychecks.

Now, he's not so sure. Not after spending most of Sunday's 24-17 win over Cincinnati all dressed up with nowhere to go.

While Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Jerricho Cotchery sliced through the Bengals' defense, the team's all-time leader in every major receiving category stood on the sideline with his helmet on, a few steps away from coach Mike Tomlin.

Ward kept waiting for Tomlin to send him into the game. Tomlin only rarely looked the 14-year veteran's way.

The 35-year-old Ward insists he didn't take it personally, even if the coaches that have relied on him never bothered to let him know he'd spend a pivotal game doing more cheerleading than route running.

"They don't owe me anything," Ward said. "It is what it is. Whatever my role is, go out there and do the best job I possibly can."

Even if what Ward's role is at the moment remains unclear. He was bumped from his starting spot against the Bengals by Brown, and found Cotchery working as the third receiver in Ward's normal slot position.

Though he sat out the second half of a loss to Baltimore the previous week following a helmet-to-helmet collision with Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, Ward felt fine. He practiced twice leading up to the Cincinnati game and remains fresh.

"I'm healthy," Ward said. "I never made excuses for injuries or anything ... it's bigger than me, it's really about the team. I'm going to continue being positive."

While not exactly calling it a demotion, Tomlin didn't exactly promise Ward will be back in his usual spot following Pittsburgh's bye week. The Steelers (7-3) play at Kansas City on Nov. 27.

"We were just looking at some personnel groups and looking at ways we wanted to attack these people," Tomlin said. "We'll do that from week to week. It may not be any indication of his participation moving forward."

Or it may be.

Brown is doing in his second season what Wallace did a year ago, developing into a legitimate downfield threat with a quickly improving set of hands. Emmanuel Sanders has shown glimpses before going down with a minor knee injury following a victory over New England on Oct. 30.

Cotchery, signed as a free agent during training camp, is finally healthy after being dogged by hamstring issues. He caught his first touchdown pass of the season against the Bengals, with another getting wiped out by a penalty away from the play.

The scoring toss was a long time coming for Cotchery, and he heaped praise upon Ward for his guidance. The two work out of adjoining lockers on the road and Ward spent the minutes leading up to kickoff reassuring Cotchery he was ready.

"He's one of my biggest supporters," Cotchery said of Ward. "Throughout the entire week he's talking to me, 'This is what you should be thinking on this route.' Right before the game he said, 'You got any questions about anything?' That's the way this locker room is. It's a blessing to be a part of."

And a rarity.

The Steelers are one of the few NFL teams that rely heavily on homegrown players. Free agent signees are rare in the Steel City, and Cotchery admitted there was some trepidation about how he'd be received after coming over from the New York Jets, whom the Steelers beat in last year's AFC title game.

It took all of one day for Cotchery's fears to be erased.

"This is a unique place, a unique locker room," Cotchery said. "Coming in from Day 1 those guys welcomed me with open arms. They said 'Put your hand in the pile and be ready to go;' that's refreshing for me. I've never been in a locker room like this ... they made my transition easy."

Ward, as one of the team's unquestioned leaders, guides the way. Cotchery knows not every receiver with Ward's sparkling credentials would keep his mouth shut if the ball stopped coming his way.

"Some guys, you'd hear from them," Cotchery said.

Not Ward, at least not to the point where he'll become a distraction. He's still fourth on the team in receptions with 27 and had a two-touchdown game against Tennessee less than two months ago.

Yet he also has two years remaining on his contract and understands that if he's no better than the fourth or fifth receiver on the team he could be expendable.

Not that he's ready to talk about his exit, saying he "prays" he gets a chance to finish his career in Pittsburgh. Until that day comes, Ward will continue nurturing the development of the kids who have taken his starting job away.

"I'm proud of those guys," Ward said. "We've got a bunch of playmakers on this team. My job is to continue staying positive and working my butt off."