Third options could prove pivotal

TAMPA, Fla. -- For the two teams playing in Super Bowl XLIII, there has been considerable discussion about the starting wide receivers.

Can the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald continue the otherworldly domination exhibited in his team's first three playoff victories? How healthy is Pittsburgh's reliable Hines Ward, who has spent nearly two weeks rehabbing from an MCL injury suffered in the AFC Championship Game? Can the strained hamstring of Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin, which forced him to miss the upset victory over Carolina in the divisional round, hold up the entire four quarters? Will the Steelers' Santonio Holmes continue to make the kind of signature big plays he has authored in each of the past two contests?

But the performance of the starters aside, it could be the exploits of the No. 3 wide receivers for each team -- Nate Washington for Pittsburgh and Steve Breaston for Arizona -- that help determine the outcome of the championship game.

Both men have made meaningful plays for their teams in 2008. And, since both teams make such extensive use of the "spread" offense, they certainly have had plenty of opportunities.

"I don't think there's such a thing anymore as a third wide receiver," said Breaston, one of three Arizona wide receivers (with Fitzgerald and Boldin) who had more than 1,000 receiving yards in 2008. "So many teams are using three and four wide receivers, that it really doesn't matter."

"We use the spread offense so much, I don't consider myself a third wide receiver," said Washington, a four-year veteran who is counted on by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to provide the deep-ball threat. "I'm more like a starter."

Both wideouts played more than 70 percent of their teams' offensive snaps in 2008, and their respective teams have plenty of respect for their playmaking abilities.

In only his second NFL season, Breaston had 77 receptions, including three catches for touchdowns. He was also Arizona's primary punt returner, bringing back 33 kicks for an average of 7.3 yards. The former Michigan star averaged 20.2 yards on 33 kickoff returns. As a receiver, he was able to take full advantage of lining up with Fitzgerald and Boldin.

"When you play with Fitzgerald and Boldin, you don't see many double-teams," Breaston said. "That's certainly an advantage for me. You can't double everyone, right?"

Breaston certainly made great strides in 2008. After experiencing a subpar rookie year in 2007, which came after a disappointing final year at Michigan forced his draft stock to slip, Breaston exploded for the 77 receptions. He had three games with five or more receptions, two games with nine catches each and three 100-yard outings.

He is especially effective running seam routes and making the "hot read" when opposing defenses blitz -- as the Steelers surely will Sunday -- and force quarterback Kurt Warner to unload quickly. Breaston possesses great speed, but he is also very quick in and out of cuts, and usually gets a clean release off the line of scrimmage. He will be a tough matchup for a physical Pittsburgh secondary that will direct much of its focus toward controlling Fitzgerald.

Said Warner: "Steve has become a very reliable guy for us."

Washington's statistics in 2008 weren't as prolific as Breaston's, but he was just as critical to the Steelers' passing game. Washington has an obvious big-play mentality, as evidenced by the fact he had four straight games with receptions of more than 50 yards and posted four of Pittsburgh's five longest pass plays. Washington averaged a team-high 15.8 yards per catch and had three consecutive games with touchdown catches, scoring on grabs of 65, 50 and 48 yards.

Washington is arguably Pittsburgh's fastest player, and the wideout runs plenty of deep routes either as a primary receiver or as a decoy, clearing out zones for other pass-catchers.

There is a strong competition among Washington, tailback Willie Parker, and cornerback Ike Taylor, about who is actually the team's fastest player. That competition may be settled after the Super Bowl, with a proposed foot race among the three.

Washington could be even more important to the Steelers if Ward is gimpy and can't play the entire game. In the AFC Championship Game, Washington replaced Ward early on, and played a position at which he had taken very few repetitions. He got a lot more reps substituting for Ward in the two weeks preceding the Super Bowl.

Breaston claims that his improvement in 2008 is also a result of the torrid, internecine competition with the Cardinals' two starters.

"You can't help but get better, being around those guys," Breaston said. "The gamesmanship just makes you better."

Injured for much of his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, when he played with two broken pinky fingers, Washington has come into his own this year. Washington had career bests for catches (40) and receiving yards (631) to go with the three touchdown catches. As a result of his improved health, and having been in the same Bruce Arians-designed offense for another year, his confidence grew immensely in 2008.

"It used to be, when I came into a game, I was on pins and needles the whole time, afraid to make a mistake that would cost us," Washington said. "This season, it was like I was floating on an air mattress. Things just came a lot more naturally."

With so much attention paid to the starters in the Super Bowl, it seems just as natural that Washington or Breaston will make a significant play Sunday night. No. 3 hopes to hold up the No. 1 at the end of the evening.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.