LATROBE – As Ricardo Colclough showed Steelers fans last year, Willie Reid is a much-needed member of the team, even if he only returns punts.
“Willie’s a helluva return man,” said Hines Ward. “And he could be a special wide receiver. He’s a guy who could really help our offense.”
That’s if he can keep his head -- literally. There’s some question about that since the defensive backs have seen fit to try and tear it off these last couple days of practice.
Anthony Smith started it Thursday when he splattered Reid after a catch over the middle. At Saturday’s practice, Ryan Clark lit Reid up well after the whistle, and Smith crushed Reid on another pass over the middle. It prompted Ward to walk over and tell the defensive backs what was on his mind.
And that was?
“It’s chicken(bleep),” said Ward. “That’s what it is. It’s chicken(bleep). We’re talking about practice, and you go out there and hurt somebody? I understand we’re going at it hard, and you want to hit somebody else, but we have to practice smart.”
Reid, of course, was drafted in the third round of the 2006 draft by the Steelers, who hoped to use his 4.3 speed as a return man. But Reid injured his foot last year on his only return of the season. HeHeHe re-injured it during spring practice this year, but has returned to full speed – which means he may be the fastest of a fleet Steelers team.
He’s the only legitimate punt returner – outside of starter (and injured) Santonio Holmes – and Reid’s been coming on as a receiver. In fact, he held on to every pass after taking the crunching blows.
“Yeah, that’s a trademark I get from Hines,” Reid said. “I try to learn from the best. He’s real aggressive so I just try to mimic the things he does.”
Reid, a 5-10, 186-pounder, said he didn’t mind the hits.
“I like a little contact every now and then, but you know, they come in a little tough. I’m going to get them back a little bit,” he said. “But we’ll calm down. We just got a little excited today.”
The hits seemed to be coming from the two free safeties competing for the one job.
“And T.C. (Tyrone Carter) and all the rest of them,” Reid said. “I talk a lot of trash to them. There are a lot of reasons for it.”
One of the reasons might be that the receivers embarrassed the secondary Friday night under the lights at Latrobe Stadium. Ward, Cedrick Wilson and Heath Miller caught touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger on three of the first four plays of the red-zone drill.
“That doesn’t matter,” said Ward. “Come back the next day and do something about it. You don’t take your frustrations out and try to hurt somebody. Even if he wasn’t trying to hurt him, that contact, that initial contact between two people, there’s always a chance of somebody getting hurt. As receivers, we’re not counting it as a scrimmage. We’re not even prepared to get hit like that. Us, we’re just trying to catch the ball and get down. Then you catch it when we’re not trying to get hit, that’s when injuries happen. If we put on full pads and everything, then let us know.
“You just got to be smart about it. Guys apologized to one another, but we still have to be smart about it. We need everybody. We don’t need a man to go down off something stupid.”
“Hines is defending his team, saying we’re kind of wrong, kind of dirty, and so we might be,” said Clark. “That’s why we play defense, not offense. I tell him, if I was wrong, I apologize, please forgive me. I’m willing to accept being wrong and take the repercussions for it. And, you know, we’re going to play tomorrow.”
Coach Mike Tomlin, who made his mark in the NFL as a defensive backs coach, didn’t seem to mind.
“It’s football. It’s football,” he said. “The big thing is that they have respect for each other. I realize that at times tempers are going to flare. That’s part of it. Part of us building this football team is understanding and controlling our emotions, too, because they’re going to flare on Sundays in the fall. That’s part of it. It’s also showing your ability take some blows and catch some balls and bounce up. Willie Reid has proven to us that he doesn’t have any fear, that he can catch balls in traffic. He’s distinguishing himself because of some of the things that are happening. But we have to leave it on the grass.”
At dinner, following practice, the two safeties, Deshea Townsend, Ike Taylor, Ward and Reid sat at the same table and it was obvious they were enjoying each other’s company.
“Funny how it all works out in the end,” Townsend said with a big smile.