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Dirty or not, Ward keys Steelers' success

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by Tom E. Curran, NBCSports.com

TAMPA (NBCSports.com) -- Heath Miller was asked what Hines Ward means to the Steelers offense.

The Pittsburgh tight end didn't pause a second.

"He is the heart and soul of our offense," Miller stated.

But this week, the heart and soul has a bad right knee. And that's bad news for the Steelers as they take on the Arizona Cardinals in Sunday's Super Bowl.

Ward, who injured the knee in the AFC Championship against the Ravens when he was twisted over, has a sprained MCL. It's an injury that makes cutting and stopping very painful.

"It's 10 times better than last week," said Ward, who said he engaged in almost round-the-clock rehab on his knee back in Pittsburgh. "I don't have a brace on, I'm walking around and up and down steps. But I haven't cut or run on it yet so I can't tell you until Wednesday or Thursday of this week how that will work out."

Ward, 32, says he hasn't practiced all season on Wednesdays but could participate a little just to get a feel. He is "anticipating" practicing Thursday.

As Miller mentioned, Ward's contributions go way beyond merely catching the ball. The joyous intensity he plays with, the do-it-all-on-every-play mentality he brings sets a standard for the Steelers offense.

"The guy leads not only by his words but by example," said Miller. "As a blocker, if you see a wide receiver down the field throwing blocks like he does, it inspires you to get the job done."

Ward's work as a downfield blocker has also been inspiring to opponents.

After breaking the jaw of Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers earlier this season, Rivers warned (through a jaw wired shut), "What goes around comes around."

Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs suggested earlier this year that the Ravens had a "bounty" on Ward because of a string a organ-rattling blocks he's delivered to players like Ed Reed and Bart Scott.

Most of Ward's most violent blocks are delivered well downfield when a defender has his head turned and is in full pursuit of a ball-carrier. Ward, peeling back, will pick them off. With extreme prejudice.

Some people say Ward's dirty. Some say he's gritty. Usually, their viewpoint is dictated by their zip code and loyalties.

Asked about the allegations he's a dirty player, Ward said Monday, "It don't bother me. My teammates and coaches don't have a problem with how I play. I'm not out there to try and hurt anyone, I just play a little aggressively. I'm on the attack mode.

"I take the approach, I'm going to hit you before you hit me," he continued. "When I go across the middle, nobody's going to try to tackle me softly, they're going to try to knock my head off. Why should I tap them on the shoulder and say, 'Look, I'm about to hit you.' It's a part of football."

Of all the blocks he's delivered in a brilliant career, the one on Rivers may have been the most devastating. Ward knows that's a hot-button hit for those who think he's a cheap-shot artist.

"I would never try to end someone's career," he said. "I hit the guy Rivers from Cincinnati, I didn't intend to break his jaw. That's the first time I ever heard I broke any part of someone's body. I didn't go in there saying, ‘I want to break a guy's jaw.' It's unfortunate that that he broke his jaw. People can call me what they want. I'm not playing this game (to care) whether people call me dirty. I play this game to win. My teammates and coaching staffs appreciate it. I don't have an incentive in my contract to go out and block the way I do. I just want to win ball games and if people don't like that so be it. I'm not a dirty player."

His head coach Mike Tomlin (not surprisingly) agrees.

Asked if he believes Ward plays to close to the edge, Tomlin said, "I don't. When I was a secondary coach for the Buccaneers and we played against the Steelers I had a great deal of respect for him. I don't subscribe to what you're suggesting. He's just a physical football player that plays the game the way it's supposed to be played. He's a football player first and a wide receiver second. He's good with the ball in his hands and he's committed to the team's success when the ball's not in his hands. Those are attributes I appreciate and any pure football fan should as well."

Ward will likely be on the field in Tampa on Sunday - at less than 100 percent - because that's how he is. A big-game player (he was MVP of Super Bowl XL against the Seahawks), he knows how important his presence alone can be for his teammates. And how distracting it can be for the opposition.

In a flurry of clichés, Ward explained the feeling of playing in a Super Bowl and why he believes he must be on the field Sunday. "All the chips are on the table. There is no tomorrow and there is more magnitude. The loser goes home (note: actually, the winner goes home too). You can be a part of history."

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