Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Profiles: Wide Receivers


In this latest edition of the profiling the all-time Pittsburgh Steelers at all positions, we turn to the outside and take a look at those who played wide receiver for the Black and Gold.

Immediately, three names will come to mind: Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Hines Ward. Swann and Stallworth. It can also be recited as Stallworth and Swann. However you call out those names, those two men made up what might be the greatest one-two punch in the history of the NFL.

Lynn Swann represented the artistic, nimble footed, acrobatic receiver of his day. His receptions from Terry Bradshaw were poetry in motion. But given his smaller size, he often took abuse at the hands of defenders, specifically the players who wore the Black and Silver of the Oakland Raiders.

Stallworth countered Swanny’s creative skills with an uncanny ability to get open downfield and stretch defensive secondaries. Along the way, Swann would come up with clutch receptions and plays that were cemented in memory, while Stallworth piled up stats that would stand until Hines Ward started breaking them years later.

Both Swann and Stallworth have landed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and odds are that “Hinesy” will as well. Now retired for several seasons, Hines Ward was a complete opposite of the two men who preceded him at the position.

Having played quarterback at the University of Georgia, Ward came to the Steelers in the third round of the 1998 NFL draft. While having the ability to play other positions, Bill Cowher immediately turned Ward into a wide receiver. The rest is history. There were times when Ward turned a trick play into a passing touchdown (see Super Bowl XL), but it was at wide receiver where he became a stud.

Ward was a clutch receiver during his career and didn’t have just one asset that stood out like Swann with his acrobatics and Stallworth just beating defenders long. Ward built the reputation of being the finest and most aggressive blocking receiver in the history of the league. Ward’s ability to knock opposing defenders on their butts also created an animosity among opponents that resulted in a rumored bounty on Ward by Baltimore Ravens players. This probably arose after a November 7, 2007 hit by Ward on Ed Reed that took him out of the game.

A year later, Ward destroyed another defender, Cincinnati’s Keith Rivers who ended up with a broken jaw. Many will blame Ward for a dirty hit, but the truth to that play was that Rivers was open game not watching or seeing Ward coming to block him. As Ward put it, all players should have their “head on a swivel.”

Given his style of aggressive play led to Hines Ward being named not once but a twice as the league’s “dirtiest player” as voted on by his peers around the NFL. Aside from knocking players off their feet, Ward proceeded to set nearly every Pittsburgh Steelers passing record in history before retiring in 2011. Many will poke fun at Ward for his appearance in front of the media following the 2004 season AFC championship loss to New England.

It was believed Jerome Bettis had played in his final game and Ward became emotional and brought to tears believing he and his team had let “the Bus” down in reaching a Super Bowl before he retired. But this was just an example of how Ward wore his emotions on his sleeve. His infectious smile on an off the field as well as his aggressive play, made him a fan favorite in Steelers Nation. No one can ever forget either that Ward won a season of Dancing with the Stars in 2011.

If Swann, Stallworth, and Ward were put to a vote for favorite Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver of all-time, the voting would probably be razor close and any other player that lined up out wide for the Steelers in their history would probably stand no chance to be voted more popular than one of those three. So with that said, which players would be on the next level below that outstanding trio?

Louis Lipps: Lipps had the name for pro football. He also had the talent. An immense volume of it. Lipps never had the opportunity to put on a Super Bowl ring, but he did play long and well enough to rank himself fourth among all Steelers receivers in history. With 6,018 yards receiving, Lipps also scored 39 touchdowns. Lipps stayed in the ‘Burgh following his retirement and currently is an employee of Steel City Mortgage Services as well as being the co-host of a Steelers radio show on ESPN Pittsburgh.

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  • Buddy Dial: Turning back the clock on the wide receiver set, we focus on Dial who became a Steeler through the 1962 draft selected in the second round. Dial would play five seasons for Pittsburgh amassing 4,723 yards through the air that ranks him seventh all-time. Dial also scored 37 times. For those who were not aware, the Pittsburgh Steelers did in fact have a cheerleading squad at one point in their history. It was in the 1960s and in 1962, those women were joined by a group of male cheerleaders who would become known as the “Ingots.”

    What does this have to do with Buddy Dial you might be asking? Those Ingots made it a tradition for that 1962 season to fire a cannon that had 12-gauge blanks in it whenever Pittsburgh scored a touchdown. As Buddy Dial scored a touchdown in 1962, those blanks went off directly in front of him frightening him and providing a reaction by Dial that was caught on film. This clip can be seen on many NFL folly films. Following the 1962 season, the Ingots disbanded and were never seen again on a Steelers field.

    Roy Jefferson: Another fine receiver for Pittsburgh was Roy Jefferson. With the Steelers from 1965 to 1969, Jefferson was lucky enough to play with the Baltimore Colts in 1970 when they won Super Bowl V. He would continue his career as a Redskin in 1971 until he retired in 1976. Jefferson was very popular in Pittsburgh and was elected to a Pittsburgh Steelers Legends Team in 2007 for the finest 24 players who were with the team before 1970. Interesting fact about Roy Jefferson is that he is a cousin of another outstanding wide receiver, Marv Fleming, who mostly played for the Miami Dolphins, and the two were also teammates both in high school and at college playing for the University of Utah.

    Santonio Holmes: Santonio Holmes played just four seasons in Pittsburgh before running into legal problems with a marijuana arrest. Before he was sent packing to the New York Jets, Holmes left his mark and legacy in Black and Gold becoming a Super Bowl hero with Ben Roethlisberger. In Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals, Holmes caught the last minute game-winning touchdown from Big Ben. In NFL Films, there is video evidence of Holmes speaking to Roethlisberger before that final drive proclaiming he wanted to be the man in that next series and wanted the ball. He caught several key passes in that final series before getting the championship game-winner.

    After departing Pittsburgh, Holmes was never the same receiver again. He is now a member of the Chicago Bears. Most fans will remember Santonio Holmes either for that one amazing catch when he toed the end zone line, or perhaps for his issues regarding his inability to stay away from the use of pot.

    Yancey Thigpen: Another interesting name that is on this list is that of Thigpen who had six solid seasons with the Steelers despite getting his start in San Diego for one season, his rookie campaign in 1991. Thigpen was a member of Pittsburgh’s 1995 AFC championship team that lost to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX and was named to the Pro Bowl twice. Thigpen would finish his career in Tennessee retiring following the 2000 season.

    “Merry Christmas, Green Bay” Yancey Thigpen

    He left Steelers Nation with one very memorable play. That came in 1995 when the Steelers were in Green Bay to play the Packers and down by 24-19 very late in the fourth quarter. Neil O’Donnell found Thigpen in the end zone but the Steelers star wide receiver dropped what would have been a winning score and would have kept the Packers from taking their division title. But with their win, Green Bay had their first division title since 1972. The gaffe didn’t harm the Steelers who were already AFC Central Division champs and heading to the playoffs with a first-round bye. But as Thigpen put it following the game, “Merry Christmas, Green Bay. That’s their Christmas present. Santa Claus came a day early.”

    Charles Johnson: For five seasons as a Pittsburgh Steeler, Charles Johnson was playing the style of football that Hines Ward would duplicate years later. Johnson during his time with the Steelers from 1994 to 1998 was the league’s best blocking wide receiver. Along with Tim Lester as the leading blocker for Jerome Bettis, Johnson and Lester provided Pittsburgh with two of the most efficient blockers in the 1990s. Johnson was a capable receiver as well, hauling in 247 receptions during his time in Black and Gold as well as scoring 15 times. But when thinking Charles Johnson, his blocking abilities will be the first thing that comes to mind.

    Elbie Nickel: Do the Pittsburgh Steelers have some of the most peculiar names in the history of pro football? One might think so with a Lipps, Yancy, or an Elbie. What is an Elbie you might ask? Googling it on the Internet will reveal from the web site babynamespedia.com that Elbie is actually derived from an Old English origin of Ethelbert. The meaning is “nobly famous.” Well, this Elbie, last name Nickel, became famous as a Steeler.

    Playing his entire career in Pittsburgh, Nickel was drafted way late in the 17th round of the 1947 draft by the Steelers but would become a star wide receiver finishing seventh on their all-time list statistically. With 5,131 yards receiving and 37 touchdowns, Nickel starred for teams that never tasted much winning. Only in his rookie campaign did the Steelers have a chance at the post-season when they finished in a tie with the Philadelphia Eagles for the division title but lost the tie-breaking game. The team would not get to the playoffs until the Immaculate Reception took place in 1972. Nickel would play 11 solid seasons with the Steelers before retiring.

    Plaxico Burress: If one thing is known about the Pittsburgh Steelers philosophy, that is they don’t like players with off-the-field issues. That is what plagued Plaxico Burress and led to his release from the team the first time around. While with the New York Giants, Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg in a New York night club and was charged with a weapons violation and sent to jail. When Burress was released from prison, he signed with the New York Jets where he played one season in 2011. He would catch 45 passes that season for 612 yards and score eight times. The Jets released him and Mike Tomlin brought him back to Pittsburgh for another try. Ben Roethlisberger always had a liking for the tall wide receiver as Plax was a big target at 6’5”. However, Burress played in only four games in 2012 and then suffered an injury before the season began in 2013 and was placed on injury reserve never to return to the regular roster and he retired in 2013.

    Fans might well remember one play from Plaxico Burress’ rookie season where he apparently thought he was still playing college ball. During a game with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Burress caught a pass for a first down and went to the turf untouched. To celebrate the play he immediately jumped up and spiked the ball thinking he was down by contact. Not having been touched by a defender, the ball was live and the Jags picked up the rock for a fumble recovery. Embarrassed, the young rookie was heckled by his own teammates who then called him “Spike Lee.” Regardless, Burress became a dangerous weapon for the Steelers from 2000 until 2004 with 4,206 yards receiving and 61 touchdowns. He had an impressive 15.9 yards-per-catch average with 264 receptions during that span.

    Ron Shanklin: Following the career of Roy Jefferson in Pittsburgh was Ron Shanklin. A steady and reliable receiver, Shanklin would wore jersey number 25. Shanklin played five seasons with the Steelers, catching 166 passes for 3,047 yards. Shanklin’s best season came in 1973 when he had 711 yards receiving, 10 touchdowns, and a 23.7 yards-per-catch mark. His average would lead the NFL. Shanklin was also a member of Pittsburgh’s very first winning Super Bowl team, a 16-6 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX. Sadly, Shanklin suffered from colon cancer that took his life prematurely at the age of 55.

    Mike Wallace: If a person that does not know football hears the name Mike Wallace, they might think of the long-running CBS show 60 Minutes. But if you are a member of Steelers Nation, then you know that the name refers to the speedy Mike Wallace that suited up for Pittsburgh. The very fast wideout from the University of Mississippi was a third round pick of the Steelers in 2009.

    As a rookie, he made an immediate impact with 39 receptions for 756 yards including a 60-yard bomb for a touchdown. That became Wallace’s M.O.: Stretching the field with long passes from Ben Roethlisberger. For every season he was with the Steelers from 2009 to 2012, he had at least one very long score. He set the record for longest touchdown reception in Steelers history in 2001 with a 95-yard catch for a score. To his credit he also had an 82-yarder, and another for 56 in separate seasons. Overall in those four seasons, he amassed 32 scores and averaged 17.2 yards-per-catch.

    When Wallace decided to go for big money and leave the Steelers for the Miami Dolphins, many fans were upset with the speedy receiver believing they had lost their go-to-guy and #1 receiver. But the number two man, Antonio Brown was ready to step up and Wallace was soon forgotten. This season he will line up for the Minnesota Vikings.

    Antonio Brown: Finally, we have the newest stud Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and already a super star in Antonio Brown. In just five short seasons, Brown has already positioned himself into sixth place all-time on Pittsburgh’s all-time receiving list. Last season, Brown had his best season yet, leading the NFL in not just receptions (129,) but total receiving yards with 1,698. Brown scored 13 times and averaged 106.1 yards-per-game. Those 129 receptions came on 181 passes thrown his way which reflects a 71% success rate of catching the ball. The 129 also represents the second most in NFL history.

    Two seasons ago, Brown joined Jacksonville’s Jimmy Smith and Pierre Garcon who has played for several teams as the only players to catch at least five balls for 50 or more yards in every game of a single season. Brown has now extended that streak to an NFL record 32 games. In addition, his yardage total last year became the new Pittsburgh Steelers single-season record breaking the mark of Yancey Thigpen. Obviously, the number of receptions is also a new one-season record for the Black and Gold.

    The records didn’t stop there. His 13 touchdowns breaks the record set by not just Hines Ward, but also by Louis Lipps and Buddy Dial, two men also in this listing of all-time great receivers. By targeting Brown 181 times, Big Ben also helped Antonio Brown achieve the most times thrown to a receiver in one season in club history. A record setting season for sure did Brown have in 2014 and perhaps the best is yet to come.

    Next: Are Steelers the best-dressed team in Pittsburgh?