Ward gaining Maddox's trust

<b> LATROBE –</b> Last year at this time, Hines Ward tempered predictions that he'd catch more than the team-record 94 passes he had caught the previous season. <br><br> Obviously, Ward was wrong. And after catching a new team-record 112 passes last season, he's once again brushing off such predictions.

"There's only one ball," Ward said.

But if history repeats itself, the mathematical progression would put him at 130 receptions this season. That's not a reach for those who've watched Ward and quarterback Tommy Maddox work together in training camp.

Chemistry is brewing between the two Pittsburgh Steelers, even though neither will wholeheartedly admit it.

"Tommy has a lot of confidence in me. When he needs somebody to make a play he kind of looks in my area," Ward said. "But I don't think Tommy's just looking for me. He knows how I run my routes and it makes it easier because I'm always constantly talking with him about coverages and whatnot, so we're just on the same page.

"We talk a lot, particularly about X's and O's. If I see a specific coverage, I know Tommy's looking for me. Knowing that, I'm going to run the best route I can at full speed."

Ward preaches what he practices. After spending the last couple of years impressing upon Plaxico Burress the importance of downfield blocking, Ward's now mentoring Antwaan Randle El on the importance of practicing hard.

"I try to tell Antwaan you've got to do it out here in practice," he said. "You've got to make plays for him out here in practice. That way, when there are two minutes left in the fourth quarter, he'll have that confidence in you since you did it day in and day out on the practice field. That's where you develop that trust."

The trust is developing between Ward and Maddox, who's in his first training camp as the starting quarterback. Maddox is building these practice bridges for the first time.

"There are different things with different receivers that you have to know," Maddox said. "And it's fun when you know certain things that Plax or Hines or El might do. And I'm even starting to feel that way with Lee Mays now. So it makes you feel a lot better dropping back."

As a backup during his first two camps with the Steelers, Maddox looked for Burress as often as he could when given the chance to work with the first team. It carried over into the regular season. With Maddox in the game, Burress' receptions jumped 53 percent to 5.5 per game, up from the 3.6 passes per game he caught from Kordell Stewart last season. Ward, on the other hand, saw only a 14 percent increase (6.4 to 7.3) with Maddox at quarterback.

"Plax is still my guy," Maddox said with a big smile. "Plax is Plax. We hit some big plays and teams started rolling to Plax a little bit and that's when the other guys have to step up. I think Plax, as much credit as he's been getting, is probably still underrated because he opens up a lot for the other guys as well."

Defenses doubled Burress early in the season but ended the season by doubling both wide receivers. It was a new look to an offense that had grown up staring at eight players selling out to stop the run at the line of scrimmage.

"That's why we need the inside guys to come up this year," Maddox said.

"With the addition of Jay Riemersma," Ward said, "I'm hoping things will change since a lot of teams were double-covering Plax and I last year. They just said ‘Y'all run the ball.' So we have to be more of a running team if they're going to use cover two on us. When they have seven in the box, you're supposed to win in the running game."

So what's the prediction this year, Hines?

"I just know I'm going to be a better wide out," he said. "I know that much because I'm getting better, as far as working on my double moves and being patient on my routes, but I don't know about stat-wise. If he throws me 60, I'll have to catch all 60. But I can't really say, other than I'll do whatever I can do to help the team win the Super Bowl. That's my only goal now."

Jim Wexell

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