For Ward and Bailey, it’s hit or be hit
Vail, CO Colorado
PITTSBURGH ” Hines Ward can’t wait to put a big hit on Champ Bailey in the open field Sunday in Denver. Afterward, Ward will be just as glad to give his former college teammate a hug at midfield.
Ward, Pittsburgh’s four-time Pro Bowl receiver, and Denver’s Bailey, a seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback, can’t seem to go an entire season without running into each other. The Steelers (4-1) and Broncos (2-3) play Sunday for the fourth time in five seasons, including the January 2006 AFC championship game won by Pittsburgh.
That’s fine with Ward, even if an afternoon spent being defended by Bailey is one of the most difficult any NFL wide receiver can experience.
“He has great speed, great athletic ability and can catch the ball,” Ward said. “I’ve seen Champ catch balls one-handed. Last year he had two (interceptions) against us. I got behind him and thought I was open, but he came out of nowhere and snatched it.”
The two began their relationship when Georgia was recruiting Bailey and Ward was his player host for the weekend. Ward must have done something right because Bailey signed with the Bulldogs.
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Both had outstanding and multidimensional careers at Georgia, Ward as a quarterback and receiver, Bailey as a defensive back who also returned kicks and occasionally ran the ball. But they have never been NFL teammates.
That has made for a series of long afternoons for both players. Last season, Ward caught seven passes for 127 yards against Denver, most with Bailey near by, but Bailey’s two interceptions were pivotal in Denver’s 31-20 win in Pittsburgh.
Ten months before, Ward helped keep Bailey out of the Super Bowl by making five catches, one for a touchdown during a 21-point Pittsburgh second quarter, as the Steelers won the AFC title game 34-17 in Denver.
“He knows me like I know him,” said Ward, one of the NFL’s best-blocking receivers. “He’ll tell me, ‘Man, don’t hit me hard.’ But I’m going to text him this week, wish him good luck. It’s definitely special to see him on the field.”
Ward is known as one of the NFL’s best on-field talkers, but he insists he has too much respect for Bailey to engage in name-calling.
“We laugh more than anything,” Ward said. “It’s kind of like a brother relationship. But he knows if he comes around my way, there’s a chance I got to hit him. At the same time, if I come across the middle, he’s going to try to tackle me. It’s total respect, good gamesmanship, and I love going against him because he’s one of best cornerbacks in the league.”
The Broncos have lost three in a row, including a 41-3 defeat to San Diego on Oct. 7, but the Steelers are wary of a team that retains so many of the core players from that AFC championship game two seasons ago.
To Ben Roethlisberger, Bailey is the kind of game-altering defensive player who can turn a well-thrown pass into an interception.
“They’re a wounded dog in a dog fight, and it’s going to be a big challenge for us,” Roethlisberger said. “But we can’t be afraid of him. We have to respect him. But if we run good routes and I put the ball where it needs to be, hopefully we can make plays.”
Denver’s defense can be especially tricky for a quarterback. The Broncos will walk eight to nine players to the line of scrimmage, making every blocker guess which defenders are blitzing and which are falling into coverage.
“What they do so well on defense is what we call Sticky Sam,” Roethlisberger said, referring to the football vernacular for a strong-side linebacker. “Two years ago, we neutralized that and hit them with a couple of big plays and that’s going to be the key. If they do decide to throw that at us, we’re going to have to find a way to protect it and beat it.”
Bailey, however, is always around to clean up any mistakes. Last season, he tied for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions and was second in the balloting for the AP Defensive Player of the Year award.
He has one interception this season despite being bothered by a quadriceps injury.
“Some cornerbacks in the league, they’ll put their hands on the ball and they drop it,” Ward said. “You make a mistake with Champ and he will catch the ball. He has the ability to take that interception and take it down for a score.”