Ward believes playoff-bound Steelers toughened by adversity
There have been a few constants during the Pittsburgh Steelers' recent batch of Super Bowl titles: a punishing defense and its accompanying mindset, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's solid play and wide receiver Hines Ward's all-around grit.
Ward sat down with NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders to discuss the Steelers' hit-or-be-hit mindset and the re-invention of Roethlisberger -- and wondered why hitting has suddenly fallen out of vogue in the league.
So why have the Steelers been so successful, winning Super Bowl titles twice in the last five seasons and contending for a third this season?
"We are a team that just tries to be mentally tough, to wear our opponents down," Ward said in an interview that aired on "Thursday Night Kickoff" before the Steelers-Carolina Panthers game. "Of course, our defense is going to lead the way. And we kind of feed off those guys. But we have some playmakers of our own on offense.
"We have an explosive guy in Mike Wallace, who's going over 1,000 yards (receiving). Now Ben, coming back after the four-game suspension, he's starting to have fun. He appreciates the game more."
Roethlisberger's six-game suspension, later reduced to four games, for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy turned into a rallying point for the Steelers, who locked up an AFC playoff berth with two regular-season games left.
"We knew the way the team rallied together (after the suspension), it was going to be a special year," Ward said. "To go 3-1 and probably one minute, 10 seconds away from being 4-0 against Baltimore speaks volumes about our team and about the character of who we are."
Ward, who was critical of Roethlisberger's attitude and off-the-field behavior, said the quarterback truly has become a team leader since returning from his suspension.
"He's a better person now," Ward said. "It's a big brother-little brother thing. We need each other. We always talk before meetings: 'Look, we have to lead this team. Lead by example.'
"(He has matured) just doing the little things. Not just hanging out with certain players. You can't be cliquish. Before, he was very cliquish, only hung out with certain guys, and a lot of guys probably took that, and it kind of rubbed them the wrong way. But now he's playing basketball with O-linemen, D-linemen, linebackers, anybody. When Ben's smiling and having fun and joking with everybody, then I know we have a great chance of winning."
The Steelers also have a great chance of winning when they're playing a tough, physical brand of football for which they are legendary. That style has come under increasing scrutiny from the NFL -- and at considerable expense of the players. Linebacker James Harrison has been docked a total of $125,000 this season, and others, including linebacker Lamar Woodley, also have been fined.
"It's still football. You can't take the physicality and the hard hitting out of football," said Ward, who has a well-deserved reputation as one of the league's fiercest-blocking receivers. "We know what we signed up for.
"I'm not out there to try to hurt anybody. I don't think any player's out there trying to hurt anybody intentionally. If you get tackled and your knee gets stuck in the grass, that's just part of the game. We've been raised and taught for so many years, 'You have to be tough. Play through pain. Play through injuries.'
"Now every time you're questioning ... you're thinking about, 'Where am I going to hit this guy?' rather than just going up and making a tackle and hitting somebody violently. You can't take that away. There's people outside who are trying to do that who have never played the game before."
And there is no question in Ward's mind that the NFL is making an example of Harrison.
"I think he's singled out," Ward said. "I've seen every hit (he has been fined for). Everybody's looking at the ref to see if he's going to throw a flag. You shouldn't have to play football like that."
Regardless, Ward doesn't plan to alter his physical style.
"I'm not going to change the way I play," he said. "If I do, then I'm cheating myself. I'm cheating my teammates. I'm cheating the organization. ... I'm not out there to try to hurt anybody and end someone's career. At the same time, it's part of football."