There are not many teams that have a group of receivers like the Steelers have right now. The Packers come to mind, the Giants as well but it’s certainly a rarity among the league today. When you have 3 guys that are capable of taking a reception the distance at any given time, the defense simply can’t cover everyone with enough quality personnel to combat every situation. It’s a distinct advantage for a Quarterback to have multiple targets with blazing speed and a fearless attitude at their disposal, and the Steelers are certainly fortunate to be in this situation.
They struck gold in the last 3 seasons with drafting Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. Each one of them has a big future in the league but if you take one away, are the other 2 ready to step up to the challenge? With all the hype surrounding Mike Wallace’s future, it’s a real possibility that the trio will become a duo in 2012.
Even with the great season that Antonio Brown had, the first player to ever have over 1,000 yds receiving and 1,000 in returns, is he ready to step up and be “the man”? It’s no secret that Brown benefitted from the extra attention that Mike Wallace gets from the secondary. That’s not a knock against either player, it’s just the nature of the game. When Wallace came to the Steelers he was the 3rd option behind Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. He had the luxury of going up against a nickel or dime back on many occasions; hence he could use his blazing speed & physical abilities to make big plays. Make no mistake, production is production in the NFL so Wallace deserves serious credit for what he’s accomplished to date.
In 2010, Wallace had a great year as the #2 receiver behind Ward, who would still garner double teams or the defenses’ best cover corner in most situations. He as able to beat his man more often than not and showed he had the potential to be the #1 guy. Wallace found out first hand though in the latter part of 2011, that the combination of extra coverage and Ben Roethlisberger injuries contributed to a significant decrease in his game day production as compared to earlier in the year. Being covered by a 2nd or 3rd team cornerback is much different than being covered by the best the defense has to offer. Wallace seems to take offense to that line of questioning when asked about it during interviews but facts are facts, and his production did drop off.
Again, we’re not second guessing the talent or abilities of Wallace here but rather pointing out that the transition from a 2nd or 3rd WR to a 1st WR can be difficult one and take time to adjust too. If the Steelers find a way to keep him in the fold for at least another year he could very well regain that momentum he had. The same can be said if goes elsewhere; you just don’t know for sure.
As far as Brown goes, if he’s not as fast as Wallace, he’s not far off, and certainly has the fearlessness down pat. In theory AB should be ready to pick up an increased work load next season and not miss a beat. He can take over for Wallace and Sanders would move up to a starting role opposite Brown. The question is can these two young players handle the pressure? We’d like to think so but the possibility exists that Brown could have problems dealing with constant double coverage that he’ll get, much like Wallace did.
Can Emmanuel Sanders stay healthy so he can take his career to the next step? He battled knee and foot injuries all of last season and missed 5 games total. It probably would have been 6 had it not been for the bye week. He had 22 catches for 288 yds and 2 touchdowns; numbers that will increase dramatically if he’s a full time starter. Sanders has the attitude and physical tools to be a productive, consistent force in the passing game as long as he can stay on the field. Plus it looks like he’ll be getting work in as a kick and punt returner next year as well. The opportunities will be there and Todd Haley will need him to take advantage of them.
I would speculate too that if Wallace does leave, that opens the door for Cotchery to be a higher priority. Having him as the 3rd WR, seeing the field regularly each week would be a big help. He’s a productive veteran who’s been around long enough to know how to handle himself in key situations such as in the redzone and 3rd downs.
Getting a solid offensive line in front of Ben, and a consistent ground attack will certainly aid in keeping #7 healthy which will help in the production of the passing game.
All this really means is that if Brown and Sanders are Roethlisberger’s primary targets next year they’ll have some adjusting to do and it could mean some growing pains along the way. It doesn’t mean they won’t be successful, not by any stretch. Personally I feel like Brown is the next big thing in the NFL; a multi dimensional threat that can keep defensive coordinators up all night trying to defense.