Tale of the tape: Ward says he, Steelers starting all over again

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PITTSBURGH (AP) – Somebody watching a Pittsburgh Steelers practice for the first time Saturday might have thought Hines Ward was a new player, not the Super Bowl MVP.

For coaches to readily identify new or unfamiliar players, it is common for an NFL rookie’s last name to be written on a piece of tape attached to the front of his helmet.

So why was Ward’s name taped above his face mask during the first day of the team’s three-day minicamp?

The four-time Pro Bowl receiver plans to wear his name on his helmet during practice until the season starts, if only to make the statement that last year is over and the Steelers must start anew if they want to win the Super Bowl. Again.

“I’m not taking that tape off until I make the team,” Ward said. “That’s my new motivation. We got all that old out of the way. This is how I did it when I first got here, and I’m recommitting myself.”

The Steelers’ two practices had a different feel to them, and not only because they are three months removed from winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in 26 years.

For the first time in 10 years, Jerome Bettis wasn’t around. One of the most productive and influential players in franchise history retired minutes after the Super Bowl victory over Seattle, and his absence was apparent.

While part of Bettis’ locker space is being filled by rookie receiver Willie Reid, Bettis’ No. 36 was nowhere to be found.

The Steelers have officially retired only one number, the No. 70 of 1950s-era lineman Ernie Stautner, but they have traditionally kept from handing out such numbers as 12 (Terry Bradshaw), 32 (Franco Harris), 58 (Jack Lambert), 59 (Jack Ham) and 75 (Joe Greene). Bettis’ No. 36 now seems destined to be included on that list.

It was obvious to Ben Roethlisberger that Bettis was gone – it was one of the quietest practices the quarterback could remember.

“You don’t hear anybody yelling right now, do you?” Roethlisberger said, laughing. “It’s one of those things where you lose a great friend out of this locker room, me in particular, a guy who’s a leader. We’ll have guys step up for a leadership role and will try to raise the bar and push the young guys, but you still miss him, obviously.”

Ward said the Steelers won’t have to look far for a replacement. Roethlisberger emerged as a leader during the eight-game winning streak that carried the Steelers to the Super Bowl, and Ward expects him to grow into that role even more this season.

Ward also hopes Roethlisberger’s ever-expanding influence also leads the Steelers to open up the offense more to play to the quarterback’s strengths. Roethlisberger’s throwing was primarily responsible for the AFC road playoff victories at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver that got Pittsburgh into the Super Bowl.

Once the season ended, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said he expected the passing game to further expand this season. Coach Bill Cowher said the Steelers moved up in the draft to take wide receiver Santonio Holmes in the first round primarily to give Roethlisberger and the passing game yet another asset.

Roethlisberger knows the Steelers will never abandon the running game, especially after a brief flirtation with a pass-heavy offense led to a 6-10 record with Tommy Maddox at quarterback in 2003. But Roethlisberger wants the passing game to be at least equally important to the running game, not subservient to it.

“Every day I kind of say something to Coach Cowher jokingly, hoping he’ll take me serious,” Roethlisberger said. “I just hope that every year they gain more confidence in me and we go out and are a more balanced offense, maybe more dangerous. Hopefully they see that we can pass and win if we have to.”

Holmes stood out in his first practice, stretching out twice to make difficult catches that quickly caught Roethlisberger’s attention. Holmes has less time to impress than the other rookies; because of an NFL-NCAA agreement, he cannot take part in the three weeks of post-minicamp coaching sessions because his Ohio State class won’t graduate until mid-June.

As a result, Holmes can’t work out again with the Steelers after this weekend until training camp starts in late July.

“Coach told me, Make your mistakes right now, so you can learn from all those things when we watch film,”‘ Holmes said. “‘Get your mistakes out of the way now.”‘

AP-ES-05-13-06 1624EDT

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