Long known for their ferocious defenses and legendary linebackers, the Pittsburgh Steelers used those elements to build a dynasty which has delivered six Lombardi Trophies. What is often overlooked though, is that each one of those six teams also had Hall of Fame caliber, with other talented wide receivers that played a large role in their success. Since 1974, the Steelers have done a very good job of stocking their offense with receivers who were considered among the most talented in the NFL, especially since 1998. Unfortunately, for a lot of those receivers, they either never had the benefit of playing with an elite quarterback, stuck behind stars, or they left for greener pastures. Others sabatoged their own careers as they were approaching their prime years. Either way, the Steelers have seen some impressive play at wide receiver over the last forty-three years.
From 1970-1974, the Steelers big play receiver was Ron Shanklin, who averaged 18.4 yards per reception, catching 166 passes for 3,047 yards and 24 touchdowns. Those numbers are rather impressive considering he caught most of his passes from two interception machines, a young and very erratic Terry Bradshaw, and an equally inept Terry Hanratty. Shanklin’s career in Pittsburgh came to a quick end when the Steelers drafted two future Hall of Fame receivers in 1974, Lynn Swann (SB X MVP) and John Stallworth.
Terry Bradshaw should be deeply greatful to Swann and Stallworth, because if it wasn’t for them, he very likely wouldn’t have won the Super Bowl XIII and XIV MVP award’s, or have been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. By the time Stallworth and Swann both retired, they were the top two receivers in Steelers history for both receptions and yards with 537/8,723 and 336/5,462 respectively. They were by far the most dangerous wide receiver duo in the NFL during their time together, often coming up with the most impossible catches at the most crucial moments.
Playing in the shadow of the super duo of Swann and Stallworth, was third receiver Jim Smith, who had the talent to be a starter for just about any other team in the league at the time. Most of his playing time came when he was filling in for an injured Lynn Swann, and he made the most of it. During his six years with the Steelers, Jim Smith caught 110 passes for 2,075 yards and 24 touchdowns. He averaged 18.9 yards per catch overall, with a career high of 22.8 in 1982.
While Lynn Swann’s career with the Steelers ended in 1982, John Stallworth played the best football of his career, as the primary target, between 1980 and 1987. In 1984, the Steelers paired him up with Louis Lipps, another game breaking receiver in the mold of Lynn Swann. In addition to being a lethal deep threat, Lipps was also a precise route runner. He could get open anywhere on the field and hang on to the ball while absorbing the biggest hits. The AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1984, and a 2-time All-Pro 1984-1985, Louis Lipps put up very impressive numbers during his career despite having to catch passes from some of the worst quarterbacks the Steelers have had in the super bowl era.
When Lipps left the Steelers after the 1991 season, he ranked second in team history in both receptions (358) and yards (6,018). His best season with the Steelers came in 1985, when he caught 59 passes for 1,134 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 19.2 yards per reception. One of his more notable touchdown catches came in 1988, one of five on the season, and is known as the Steel City Wonder, where he caught the ball with his facemask and scored.
The 1990’s ushered in a “new breed”, so to speak, of wide receivers for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were a bit bigger and more physical than the typical Steelers receivers of the past. These receivers were a perfect fit for the four and five wide receiver sets that offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt cooked up in order to take advantage of their skillsets. Beginning in 1991 the Steelers would add five quality receivers that played a huge role in their return to the Super Bowl that the 1995 season.
The first of these receivers to arrive was Ernie Mills, a 5’11″/192lb wide receiver out of Florida. Mills was a nice combination of a big play/possession receiver who could dish out punishment as well as take it. While Ernie Mills wasn’t a featured target in the offense, the catches he made were usually clutch and kept the chains moving. The biggest reception of his career came along the far sideline, down near the endzone, in the 1995 AFCC game against the Colts. His huge third down reception set up the game winning touchdown that propelled the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX.
In 1992, Yancey Thigpen arrived in Pittsburgh as unheralded free agent from San Diego and became the Steelers best wideout until leaving as a free agent following the ’97 season. At 6’1″/208lbs, Thigpen was a physical receiver who didn’t hesitate to throw his body around in the running game, or to initiate contact when he had the ball in his hands. A two-time First-Team All-Pro after the the 1995 and 1997 seasons, Thigpen, who led a group of talented receivers, also helped the Steelers reach Super Bowl XXX.
Thigpen set quite a few Steelers receiving records during those two years as well. In 1995 Yancey caught 85 balls for 1,307 yards and 5 touchdowns. Following an injury plagued ’96 season, Thigpen bounced back 1997 with 79 receptions for 1,398 yards and 7 touchdowns. Following that season, he left the Steelers, through free agency, to sign the largest contract ever awarded a wide receiver, with the Tennessee Titans. During his career with the Steelers, Yancey Thigpen totalled 222 receptions, 3,651 yards, and 21 touchdowns.
Charles Johnson was the Steelers number one pick out of Colorado in 1994, and was expected to be their deep ball threat. Johnson, at 6’0″/200lbs, had the size and speed needed to create separation, and the toughness to go across the middle. His best season with the Steelers came in 1996, when he picked up the slack for an injured Yancey Thigpen and hauled in 60 passes for 1,008 yards. Like Thigpen, Johnson was dependable and made plenty of clutch catches in key situations. Over the course of his career in Pittsburgh, Charles Johnson had 247 receptions, 3,400 yards, and 15 touchdowns.
The year after the the Steelers lost one of the best receivers in football to free agency, Yancey Thigpen, they drafted the best overall wide receiver in team history. In the second round of the 1998 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected University of Georgia wide receiver Hines Ward. With his background at Georgia as a quarterback/running back/wide receiver, the Steelers initially viewed him as potentially filling the role of a Slash type player, similar to one that Kordell Stewart filled as a rookie. Hines used his two years in the 90’s to cut his teeth at the beginning of a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
Although Hines Ward was drafted in 1998, his career didn’t take off until after the year 2000. The Super Bowl XL MVP first gained notoriety with his devastating blocking ability, which saw him decleat eleven different defenders over the course of his career, including former Steelers great Rod Woodson. His perpetual smile and his crushing blocks, which forced a rule change after he broke the jaw of Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers, quickly made him a fan favorite among Steelernation.
Hines Ward started to become a household name following a three year span, from 2001-2003, where he set the Steelers all-time single season receptions record twice, first with 94 receptions in 2001, followed by 112 in 2002. In total, during that three year period, Ward racked up 301 receptions, 3,495 yards, and 26 touchdowns. 2001 started a nine year run for Hines that saw him average over 1,000 yards per season.
In 2002, another receiver made his way to the Steelers via the draft, former Indiana Hoosiers quarterback, Antwaan Randle El. Antwaan was a feisty wide receiver who was a fearless blocker, much like Hines Ward, and had one of the most reliable pair of hands in the NFL. Although El wasn’t with the Steelers for very long, he made a lasting impact with his do it all attitude. He left Steelernation with an eternal memory by becoming the first wide receiver in Super Bowl history to throw a touchdown pass, one that put Super Bowl XL on ice for the Steelers.
By the time Hines retired, following the 2011 season, he owned numerous franchise receiving records including career records for receptions (1,000), yards (12,083), and touchdown receptions (85). What makes Hines Ward’s numbers even more impressive than they already are, is that they came in an offense that featured a ground attack, first led by Jerome Bettis, then by Willie Parker. His legacy as the best all around receiver in NFL history was cemented after winning his second championship ring in Super Bowl XLIII.
Santonio Holmes, out of Ohio State, was the Steelers first pick in the 2006 NFL draft because of a need for a weapon opposite of Hines Ward. Holmes quickly made an impact on the field which culminated with him winning the the MVP award in Super Bowl XLIII, following what is arguably the greatest touchdown reception in Super Bowl history. Prior to his game winning grab, Holmes went to Ben Roethlisberger just prior to the drive to let Ben know that he wanted the ball. After the start of what could have been a great career, Santonio Holmes was traded, following the 2009 season, due to personal conduct issues.
After the trade of Santonio Holmes, the Steelers had a hole to fill opposite of Hines Ward. Almost immediately, they had his replacement on the roster, in the form of 2010 6th round pick Antonio Brown. From the moment Brown arrived, his talent and work ethic stood out, so much so that Hines Ward took him under his wing. The very first time that Antonio Brown touched the ball in a regular season game, he took it to the endzone and hasn’t looked back.
Since 2013, Antonio Brown has been the best receiver in the NFL, and is on the most historic run ever for a wide receiver. Over the last four years, Brown has simply dominated the league, with 481 receptions, 6,315 yards and 43 touchdowns. Brown shows no signs of slowing down either. Working without the help of a legitimate number two receiver in 2016, Brown was left facing a lot of double, and sometimes triple coverages, yet he still managed to catch 106 balls.
Antonio Brown has barely entered the prime years of his career and already has 632 receptions for 8,377 yards and 50 touchdowns. If he can maintain his current pace, who knows, by the time Ben Roethlisberger retires, Brown could be close to surpassing the numbers put up by Hines Ward. Either way, having Martavis Bryant back for 2017 will surely make life a lot easier for the Steelers number one receiver, and who knows, maybe he gets that anticipated 150 catch, 2,000 yard season after all.
With the exception of the last couple years of the 70’s, and the current Todd Haley years, the Steelers were always a predominantly run oriented team. They ran by design and only threw the ball when deemed necessary. That’s why the Steelers deserve a lot more credit for having such an impressive legacy of wide receivers. How much better would the production of all that talent have been had they played in a prolific passing game? That legacy includes players who weren’t listed above, such as Theo Bell, Calvin Sweeney and Plaxico Burress, receivers who had big games and made big plays.
In Pittsburgh, it has always been about the defense and big hits, but behind every Super Bowl title and postseason run since 1972, there has always been a wide receiver that has stepped up to either put the Steelers in the Super Bowl or to put the trophy in the case. Whether the Steelers ever get the credit they deserve for the wide receiver talent they have developed throughout the years, it’s hard to argue with all of the success they have with the wide receivers they have had.