I keep saying that I’m over and done with this whole Mike Wallace thing but as camp moves forward, heading into it’s second full week, the passing attack of the Steelers continues to prepare for life with out their speedy deep threat. Whether or not you’re in the same boat as me, tired of the Wallace circus, thinking he’s a one trick pony, or whatever, he fills a role and the other receivers benefit from it.
Hines Ward, up until most of last year was still garnering double teams from the defense, taking some pressure off Wallace to go deep, many times one on one after beating his cover man. Before that Santonio Holmes got a lot of attention from defenders allowing a young Mike Wallace to take advantage of one on one coverage many times. Before that, Ward took the double teams when Holmes was starting to emerge. It’s a continuous cycle in the NFL, and the reason you need at least top flight receivers to be consistently potent on offense. Those types of situations go a long way to the big numbers that Wallace has been able to accumulate in his young career ( 171 catches, 3206 yds, 24 TD’s).
There are several reasons for optimism when it comes to life, potentially, without Mike Wallace. Antonio Brown, fresh off his new 5 yr. 42.5 million contract and a healthy Emmanuel Sanders find themselves as the starters while their teammate continues his holdout for more money. Make no mistake there’s still time for Wallace to come to his senses and sign his tender, get into camp, and work on the offense with Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger. Each day he misses though is another opportunity to be ready for the season but also another chance for Brown and Sanders to get their timing with Ben and learn the new offense.
Can Brown handle the role as the teams WR if Wallace holds out, which he could do up until week 10 and still get credit for the season? If you look at last year’s numbers then you would think, yes. 1,275 yds receiving with an average of 16.1 ypc is top flight any way you slice it. He also of course had 1,134 yds in returns too; something he probably won’t do this year as Tomlin likely will keep him more on offense than special teams. Those numbers are amazing, but how much of it was Brown and how much of it was Wallace streaking down the field and taking 2 defenders with him? You’d have to say it was a combination of both, taking nothing away from Brown’s abilities certainly. Brown has a good burst off the line, toughness to catch the ball in traffic, and comparable speed (see stats below) to any receiver in the league. It may not be Wallace speed but he can hold his own. Is all that enough though?
Sanders actually ran the 40 faster than Brown did when they were drafted in 2010, and would take over in Brown’s spot technically but would be more of an underneath, short yardage type of receiver who can take a 10 yd pass and turn it into 30 yds in a hurry. He’s very quick in and out of his breaks, with great acceleration when healthy. So he can stretch the field as well but he seems to have a knack for getting up in the intermediate routes; a necessary option for any offense. His key of course is to stay healthy, which he’s been able to do in camp so far. Tomlin is careful with him at St. Vincent, giving him time to rest every few days. Manny is one of the best route runners on the team, something that Hines Ward was known for, and that goes a long way to making a name for yourself, especially in an offense that everyone is trying to perfect. The double coverages would likely swing towards Antonio Brown, leaving Sanders with his share of one one’s, something he’ll need to take advantage of. This is a big year for him as he’s looking for a nice payday after this season.
Then there’s Jerricho Cotchery aka Hines Ward Jr. There’s a reason the Steelers wanted Cotchery back this offseason and not just because he’s a veteran leader. If he has to start he’s more than capable of doing so and he’s got the skills and toughness to be productive. Another cause for optimism is that Todd Haley is installing a potent ground game, and a passing game that includes the use of the tight end and running backs more than we’ve seen from the Steelers in the past. All those additional weapons will keep the defense honest and open holes for whomever is out in pass routes for Ben Roethlisberger.
Toss in rookie Chris Rainey, who is no lock to make the team, but is showing big things in camp so far and is on the fast track to a roster spot (like that one didn’t ya?). He can be a super star in the return game and big threat on the outside quick passes. Imagine him taking a slant pass from Roethlisberger.
Just for fun, compare the 40 times from the speedsters in Pittsburgh now:
Antonio Brown – 2010 – 4.57
Emmanuel Sanders – 2010 – 4.40
Mike Wallace – 2009 – 4.33
Chris Rainey – 2012 – 4.45
That’s some serious, smokin, speed right there even without #17.
Think what you want about Wallace, and trust me I do, but for all the attention he’s getting for not being here, the Steeler offense will be better with him, rather than without him still, even with everything we just talked about. If he chooses to hold out when the season starts then Brown and Sanders will be the men ready to step up along with veteran Jerricho Cotchery, Heath Miller, and the running backs. Can they hold their own without having Wallace there to take the extra coverage? We’ll like to think so and hopefully they can, but with any luck we won’t have to find out.