Receivers deliver hits, catch heat

TAMPA, Fla. -- College and pro football may be evolving into more of a finesse sport with the growing tendency to spread the field with receivers, but the Cardinals' Anquan Boldin and the Steelers' Hines Ward have a different agenda. They love to spread some pain, delivering a few blows to those trying to stop them.

Boldin, considered by many in the NFL to be the most physical receiver in football, was asked whether Ward would be considered second.

"I would say yes," Boldin said.

Ward, like Boldin, believes it's better to give than just to receive.

"I just believe in playing a little aggressively," Ward said. "I'm in the attack mode. I always took the approach that I'm going to hit you before you hit me. When you go across the middle, nobody is going to tackle you softly. They are trying to knock my head off. So why should I wait and tap them on the shoulder and make it look like I'm about to hit them? People can call me what they want, but I play this game to win."

As they prepare for Super Bowl XLIII, Boldin and Ward are two of the focal points of the week. Their styles are similar, but their circumstances are different.

Ward is hated throughout the AFC North for the hard hits he delivers as a blocker. Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens mentioned a bounty on Ward from the first Ravens-Steelers meeting. Bengals players wanted a piece of Ward because he broke the jaw of linebacker Keith Rivers with a hit.

"I didn't intend to break his jaw," said Ward, who wasn't penalized for the hit. "That was the first time I had ever heard that I ever broke anyone's part of the body. I didn't go in saying that I wanted to break a guy's jaw. It was just unfortunate that I hit him and it was unfortunate that he broke his jaw. People can call me what they want."

Former Ravens coach Brian Billick once said of Ward, "I hate the S.O.B., but I'd love to have him on my team." What irritates opponents is Ward usually gets the best of the hits, then bounces up after the play with a big smile on his face. It makes him laugh that opponents think he's too aggressive blocking.

"I don't have an incentive in my contract to block the way I do," Ward said.

On the flip side, Boldin doesn't wear a smile on his face, particularly not this season. He's serious about his work and is always pushing himself to improve. Cardinals players call him the ultimate teammate because of his professionalism in games and in practice. He has hastened the development of Larry Fitzgerald and the other young Arizona receivers because they copy how precise he is in running routes and executing the fundamentals.

Boldin's lack of a smile is even more noticeable this season because of a season-long contract dispute with the Cardinals. When the Bidwills gave Fitzgerald a four-year, $40 million contract in March, Boldin steamed because he was making less than $6 million and requested a trade.

"The future is the future," Boldin said. "Like I said, I don't even dwell on it. I don't even give it a second thought. I think that if you worry about too much of the future, you miss the moment right now, and that is something that I don't want to do."

The interesting part of the backgrounds of Boldin and Ward is that both were college quarterbacks, Boldin at Florida State and Ward at Georgia. Jeff Blake was the starting quarterback for the Cardinals when Boldin came into the league as a rookie in 2003. In training camp, Blake marveled how Boldin's background as a quarterback enabled him to consistently get to open spots against zone coverages, allowing quarterbacks to easily find him for completions.

Boldin ended up going to the Pro Bowl as a rookie with 101 catches.

"As an ex-quarterback, you can be used in so many different aspects," Boldin said. "You can come out of the backfield. You can be used in the slot. You can be put out wide. As an ex-quarterback, you know what the quarterback is thinking so you can get to the spot where he can get you the ball. You know what he's seeing."

Both receivers entered the league with chips on their shoulders. A 4.71 40-yard dash at the NFL combine cost Boldin a chance to go in the first round. The Cardinals got him in the second. Ward dropped into the third round, partly because it was discovered he didn't have an ACL in his left knee on account of a childhood bicycle accident.

How each player handles the Super Bowl could dictate the winner of this game. Ward was the Super Bowl MVP in 2005, but that performance might be hard to duplicate because a knee injury means he won't be 100 percent. Boldin would be quite the story if he's the MVP because it could be his last game as a Cardinal.

Regardless, even though they are receivers, they almost always deliver.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.