The Mike Wallace Factor: What losing him would mean to the Steelers
By Jordan Wagner
Despite his number of receiving yards decreasing slightly from the previous season, wide receiver Mike Wallace has shown again how valuable of an offensive threat he is for the Steelers offense. Wallace increased his number of season receptions for 2011 from 60 in the previous season to 72, it addition to posting up 1,193 receiving yards and ranking 11th among top receivers in the NFL for that category. Joined by speedy companions Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Saunders, the Steelers offense contains some of the fastest receivers in the NFL. Pittsburgh has always been known as a ground and pound team, though. So what would losing Mike Wallace do to the offense for the 2012 season?
The answer to this question we could start by looking at quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben threw for the highest amount of yards in his career during the 2009 season; coincidentally, the same season the Mike Wallace joined the Steelers. He also doubled his number of 40+ yard passes from 7 the previous year to 14. Wallace’s speed makes him valuable from short slant routes (which the Steelers have implemented a lot more during this past season), where he can make defenders miss with his elusiveness, to long throws downfield where “it’s hard to overthrow him.” He’s been said to fly downfield as well as anyone in the NFL, and this does more than just give Ben a target far away. It spreads the field for the Steelers offense. While safeties must commit to him or be burned by his speed, other receivers such as Brown and Sanders can find more space than would have otherwise existed.
In terms of the run game, the Steelers did not crack a top ten spot in total rushing yards this season, ranking at number 14 behind the Buffalo Bills. Rashard Mendenhall’s total rushing yards dipped from the thousands the previous season down into triple digits. A lot of salvation for the Steelers offense came not from its running game, but its passing attack. The Steelers rushing game accounted for 13 of the 36 total of touchdowns by the Steelers for the 2011 season, while the passing game supplied 21 touchdowns (there was also a return and defensive touchdown to total the 36.)
However, it can certainly be argued that losing Wallace would not be entirely devastating to the Steelers offense and the team as a whole. One idea is that Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders would be easy replacements into his role as a field stretcher. Emmanuel and Antonio are both lightning fast players who can stretch the field. Not paying Mike Wallace would also free up cap space to help the team in another position - possibly by allowing the Steelers to upgrade the offensive line and provide more protection for Ben Roethlisberger.
Not to mention, Art Rooney II has said that he would like to go back to the ground and pound game for the next upcoming season. This blue-collar style of football is what the Steelers have become known for over their existence, using their running game to eat up clock and then letting their strong defense close out the games. Should the Steelers choose to focus more on their running game for the next season, it appears obvious that the total number of pass attempts will drop, and the need for downfield passes will not be as great (although it should still exist to add balance to their offense.) The Steelers will use the first rounds, hopefully, to draft a cornerback or linebacker for more depth on defense, especially with James Farrior now gone, or perhaps new offensive linemen. A wide receiver, at least a notable one, isn’t something the Steelers are looking at for in the first rounds.
So what would losing Wallace mean for the team’s ultimate goal? It’s hard to say at this point whether losing the leading receiver in touchdowns from this past season will mean severe trouble for the Steelers in terms of being able to make a playoff berth. Obviously, Steelers fans would like if he could stay. He is a star receiver that is young, fast, and still has a ton of potential to develop his game. What will become interesting is if the Cincinnati Bengals are able to snatch him. With other receiver A.J Green, they might be able to pester the Steelers for their usual playoff spot in the AFC North. The Ravens, much to my dismay, proved this season that they were the best in the division. Having to battle with them and a Bengals team who has acquired a Steelers star player could prove problematic for Pittsburgh. There is also the possibility of Denver trying to acquire Wallace with Manning now a Bronco. However, it is the Steelers defense, arguably, that makes the team a contender for a playoff spot every year, and so perhaps a shifted focus back to blue collar football and a draft that picks up players to replace some of the oldest defensive players in the league will prove to be the more important factor for the Steelers this coming season, should Mike Wallace leave.
Sources: NFL.com, Nick Onderick, Matt Auster.