As The WRs Turn

Here's Jim Wexell's breakdown of the Steelers' loss of Santonio Holmes and the Ravens' addition of Anquan Boldin and what it means for Sunday's game.

PITTSBURGH – The Baltimore Ravens didn't add a true deep threat in the offseason, but they did sign one of the best receivers in the game in Anquan Boldin.

Boldin is the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week after catching 8 passes for 142 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Cleveland Browns. His 20 receptions this season rank fourth in the AFC.

"He's like Hines Ward in the early days," said Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. "He's hard-nosed and is willing to throw his body around."

And he's productive. Boldin was the fastest receiver in NFL history to reach 400 catches, and then 500 catches, and last Sunday 600 catches, which Boldin reached in his 98th game – or four sooner than did the next fastest, Marvin Harrison.

But most comparisons with Boldin lean toward Ward. Both receivers are similar in size, both are physical, both run like tailbacks after the catch, and both catch the ball at a prolific rate.

Boldin will turn 30 on Sunday. From the season in which he turned 25 (2005) through this week, Boldin caught 449 passes for 5,807 yards (12.9 avg.) and 38 touchdowns.

During the same five-plus-year age span, Ward caught 459 passes for 5,573 yards (12.1 avg.) and 42 touchdowns.

The two would be identical, except that Ward has two Super Bowl rings and Boldin has none.

Of course, if it wasn't for Santonio Holmes, that statistic would probably be identical as well. And that's where the Steelers find themselves this week: without Holmes.

While the Ravens have added a premier wide receiver for this series, the Steelers have lost one. And they lost a true Ravens killer, too.

In 9 career games against the Ravens, Holmes caught 35 passes for 641 yards (18.3 avg.) and 8 touchdowns.

Holmes caught touchdowns passes in each of the last 7 meetings. There were long touchdown catches – 33, 24, 38, 65, 59 – and short ones, such as the 4-yarder at the goal line late in 2008 that was reversed and gave the Steelers a big win.

His 65-yarder in the AFC Championship game a month later was the Steelers' only offensive touchdown.

"We put him in good matchups," explained Ward. "When you saw Santonio score big, they blitzed the house and he's one-on-one on the backside."

Ward said that spot Sunday will be played by either Antwaan Randle El, Mike Wallace or Arnaz Battle. The key is reading the Ravens' defense.

"You can't replace a Santonio," Ward said. "He's had success over the years, but it's something we're trying to develop. Whoever that backside X (split end) is, if they all-out blitz and we catch them, we've got to be able to score. That's what made Santonio special."

The Ravens aren't playing as many 8-man fronts without Ed Reed, who's on the PUP list recovering from offseason hip surgery. They're in a Cover-2 (two deep safeties) alignment much of the time.

"They're a little softer in the secondary," Ward said. "It's almost like a bend-but-don't-break defense. They want you to move methodically down the field while getting pressure at the same time. Eventually they're hoping for mistakes to happen. They don't all-out blitz with Cover-0 anymore."

And perhaps that defensive change by the Ravens will lessen the loss of Holmes for the Steelers. But can the Steelers' secondary minimize the Ravens' addition of Boldin?

"He brings a little more physical nature to the game," said Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden, who covered Boldin every day in practice for two years at Florida State and again last year with the Arizona Cardinals.

"Baltimore was already a physical offense. Bringing him in is another dimension, and we've got to get ready for it."

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