The Pittsburgh Steelers have an identity as a hard-nosed franchise. Today, however, we’re going to talk about a position not traditionally known for its toughness. Rather, it’ll be about the best Steelers receivers in Pittsburgh history.
Indeed, the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s became known as the “Steel Curtain” with fearsome defensive players like Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, “Mean” Joe Greene and Mel Blount attaining iconic status.
This trend would continue with Steelers teams in the 2000s, as the likes of Troy Polamalu and James Harrison would become imposing figures and anchor a dominant defense en route to a Super Bowl title in 2008.
But the Steelers have had their fair share of noteworthy offensive players, particularly at the wide receiver position. Those same 70s teams boasted an elite duo in Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, while Hines Ward would become a face of the franchise in the 2000s.
The following is a list of the five best Steelers receivers in Pittsburgh history.
5. Santonio Holmes
All due respect to the likes of Louis Lipps and Yancy Thigpen, but Holmes deserves a spot on this list.
Holmes was a first-round pick with the Steelers in 2006, and immediately made an impact as a big-play threat. The former Ohio State star had 824 receiving yards in his rookie season. He followed that season by leading the NFL with 18.1 yards per reception in 2007.
Holmes would go on to bust out for 1,248 yards receiving in 2009. However, it is what he did in the 2008 playoffs that really cements his place on this list.
After clinching the NFC North division against the Baltimore Ravens during the regular season, Holmes burned them for a 65-yard touchdown during the AFC Championship.
That was only the precursor to his stunning Super Bowl performance.
Holmes torched the Arizona Cardinals for nine receptions and 131 yards, including his famous tip-toe, game-winning touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone.
4. Lynn Swann
Swann played just nine years in the NFL, all with the Steelers. But he certainly made a big impact despite a short career.
The former USC star led the NFL in touchdown receptions (11) and made the Pro Bowl in just his second season in 1975. Swann was named All-Pro in 1978, and he averaged an absurd (especially for that era) 19.7 yards per reception in 1979.
Like Holmes, Swann’s most defining moments came in the Super Bowl.
Swann actually had one rush for -7 yards and zero receptions in his first Super Bowl in 1974, but he sure made up for it in the next three.
The Hall of Famer racked up 364 yards and scored a touchdown in each of Pittsburgh’s next three Super Bowl appearances (all wins). He had four receptions for an insane 161 yards during Super Bowl X against the Dallas Cowboys, including this gem.
Swann’s excellence on the grandest stage made him one of the best playoff receivers ever, and very deserving of a spot on this list.
3. John Stallworth
Stallworth had more longevity than Swann, and he was every bit as excellent. In fact, Stallworth notched three separate 1,000-yard seasons. Swann never had one.
The former fourth-round pick had a rough go of things in his first three seasons, but a breakout campaign in 1977 sent Stallworth on his way. Two years later, he was named first-team All-Pro after catching 70 passes for 1,183 yards and eight touchdowns.
The rest is history, as Stallworth would eventually cement his place in Canton. Much like Swann, he also made enormous plays on the biggest stage.
Stallworth was held to just five receptions for 32 yards in the team’s first two Super Bowls, with Swann starring in Super Bowl X.
But Stallworth would not be denied, catching a pair of huge touchdown catches during Pittsburgh’s thrilling 35-31 over the Cowboys in Suer Bowl XIII while hauling in three passes for 121 yards and a touchdown the following year.
Stallworth played in just 13 games combined between 1982 and 1983. He responded by having his best statistical year in 1984, catching 80 passes for 1,395 yards and 11 touchdowns en route to the Comeback Player of the Year Award.
There is no question Stallworth is one of the most beloved figures in Steelers history. This next player, on the other hand…
2. Antonio Brown
Regardless of how fans feel about Brown, there is no denying he belongs in this spot.
Brown played nine seasons with the Steelers. He made Seven Pro Bowls and was named first-team All-Pro in four consecutive seasons from 2014 to 2017.
The former sixth-round pick blossomed from a special teams playmaker to the best receiver in the game. Brown led the NFL in receptions twice, and led the league in receiving yards three times. He also posted an NFL-best 15 touchdown catches in 2017.
Brown amassed 837 catches for over 11,000 yards during his nine years in the Steel City. He had more catches and nearly as many yards as Calvin Johnson did during his nine-year career with the Detroit Lions, and we all know what kind of esteem Johnson holds in the annals of NFL history.
Yes, Brown’s off-field incidents have been troublesome and even reprehensible. The way in which he left the Steelers was ugly.
But he is unquestionably one of the two best receivers in franchise history.
1. Hines Ward
So, who could top Brown’s accomplishments? That would be someone with the accomplishments and symbolic importance, to match.
Hines Ward spent the entirety of his 14-year career with the Steelers, making four Pro Bowls and winning a pair of Super Bowls in 2005 and 2008.
Ward finished his career with 1,000 receptions (14th in NFL history) and ranks in a tie for 15th with 85 touchdown receptions.
The former Georgia Bulldog had four straight 1,000-yard seasons between 2001 and 2004. He also strung together two more in 2008 and 2009.
Like other names on this list, Ward shined during the Super Bowl. He earned MVP honors in a victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, with five receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown. Ward also caught seven passes for 78 yards and a touchdown in a losing effort in Super Bowl XLV.
However, it is Ward’s leadership and intangibles that make him the top selection.
Aside from being a sure-handed receiver, he was one of the best blockers at the wide receiver position, routinely drilling defensive backs and linebackers on crackbacks. He was fearless on and off the field, and even in retirement has never shied away from critiquing former teammates.
Despite playing in an era loaded with talent at his position, Ward managed to stake his claim as the greatest receiver in Steelers history.