The result is that Cowher, who earlier in his tenure had introduced the five-wideout formation and Stewart's Slash persona, now greenlights plays such as 35 Sucker, which produced seven of Bettis's 81 rushing yards on Sunday. With 2:49 left in the first half and the ball at the Minnesota 24, Stewart stepped away from center Jeff Hartings, turned to his right and began yelling at wide receiver Hines Ward. When Ward pretended not to hear him, Stewart took two steps toward the receiver and then called out a phantom adjustment as Hartings snapped the ball to Bettis, who advanced to the 17 before the Vikings knew what had hit them.
Although Ward caught only three passes for 37 yards, his value, as always, could not be gauged solely by statistics. When Cowher calls Ward "the most complete receiver in the game," he's referring to contributions such as the one Ward made during backup wide receiver Troy Edwards's 12-yard touchdown run, which gave Pittsburgh a 14-3 lead midway through the third quarter. As Edwards took a handoff from Stewart and raced around right end, Ward, a terrific blocker, was busy eliminating Minnesota's Dale Carter—one of the league's more physical cornerbacks—from the picture. "Troy did the same for me on a TD run against Tennessee earlier this season," Ward says. "I take pride in doing the little things."
Ward is the Steelers' answer to Beatles guitarist George Harrison, providing subtle harmonies, consistent precision and, occasionally, smash hits. In a Nov. 11 victory over the Cleveland Browns, the 6-foot, 200-pound wideout threw an assertive block at Earl Little, prompting the Browns' strong safety to hiss, as Ward recalls, "I'm gonna kill you." Two plays later Stewart flipped an outlet pass to running back Amos Zereoue, and Ward, who had run a slant pattern, crack-blocked the unsuspecting Little so forcefully that it knocked him out. Ward drew a taunting penalty for standing over Little and celebrating. "I apologize for that," Ward says, "but I don't apologize for the hit, because it was clean."
Such brash displays are rare for Ward, a fourth-year player and former third-round draft selection from Georgia who is sort of an anti-Moss. Whereas the Vikings' young star sometimes appears to lose interest during games and recently told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "I play when I want to play," Ward, who has lacked the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee since a childhood bike accident, adheres to a stricter standard. "He plays every play as if it's his last, even in practice," says backup linebacker Mike Jones.
Adds Flowers, "Because of Hines's attitude, I think that our offense is starting to play more physically than our defense."
"People say I'm always smiling, even in practice," Ward said last Thursday as he sat in the living room of the home he recently bought in Pittsburgh's Shadyside district. "I never dreamed I could make it to the pros, and I enjoy the privilege of putting on that uniform." Nonetheless, Ward—who, with 69 receptions, is on pace to break Yancey Thigpen's team record of 85—wasn't overjoyed when he started last year as a backup to Edwards, a first-round pick in 1999. "The coaches never even talked to me about it," says Ward, who caught 61 passes in '99. "It seemed like I was always getting screwed."
Now Edwards, who on Sunday stripped the ball from Minnesota kick returner Nate Jacquet to set up the Steelers' final touchdown, is the backup. Another first-round draft choice, Plaxico Burress (six catches, 86 yards against the Vikings), has emerged as a big-play threat. Still, there are days when Heinz Field becomes Hines Field—days like Nov. 18, when he had nine receptions for 112 yards in a 20-7 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Hines's popularity in Pittsburgh is on the rise, but it's doubtful it will approach that of Bettis, the Steel City's most treasured football hero of this era.
Although it seems as if the Bus has a fresh set of tires in 2001—on his first carry against Minnesota he surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the sixth consecutive season—Bettis, 29, is not immune to the occasional breakdown. When he left Sunday's game, so did the Steelers' momentum, and Minnesota quarterback Todd Bouman, who had replaced injured starter Daunte Culpepper early in the fourth quarter, led an unlikely comeback. After running back Michael Bennett scored on an 80-yard screen pass with 6:29 to go, Moss, apparently having summoned sufficient desire, followed a 62-yard reception with a 12-yard touchdown catch. Pittsburgh's lead was down to 21-16. Then with 2:13 remaining, Vikings defensive tackle Chris Hovan pushed guard Oliver Ross into Stewart, forcing a fumble that Minnesota defensive end Talance Sawyer recovered at the Steelers' 10 and causing undigested sausages to rise in the throats of thousands of fans.
"That's exactly what the defense needed, though, a chance to make it right," Flowers said. "That one stand made us a tougher, stronger defense for the long haul." The Vikings had second-and-goal from the five-yard line before a pair of penalties set them back, the latter a call on Bouman for throwing a pass from well beyond the line of scrimmage, which wiped out a touchdown reception by Carter.
Not until the locker room had cleared did Flowers allow himself to smile. "This is a bittersweet win," he said, "but, hey, we're 9-2, and nobody in the NFL is better. This is huge, a great day for Pittsburgh. Besides, we understand what happened—we're not idiots—and the lesson can help us down the road, if we choose to apply it."