On the Steelers: Wallace facing difficult transition
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It all came so easily for Mike Wallace last season. See Mike Run. See Mike Run Fast. Throw Mike the Ball. See Mike Catch.
Everyone noticed, too, from the start of training camp through the final game of the season at Miami when he caught a 54-yard touchdown pass in a six-point Steelers victory against the Dolphins. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had to adjust in camp to release his deep passes to Wallace more quickly or else Wallace would outrun them.
As a rookie, Wallace caught 39 passes for 756 yards, tied for the team lead with six touchdown receptions, and he led the NFL with a 19.4-yard average per catch.
"He had a role that for a rookie was very easy: Go deep, clear the field, run certain routes that you ran well and understood," said Bruce Arians, the Steelers' offensive coordinator.
It was simple math compared to the trigonometry assignment Wallace has this season. He moves from being the receiver who runs deep all the time against man-to-man coverage by the opponent's No. 3 cornerback, to replacing Santonio Holmes at split end, where double coverage, shutdown corners and more complicated routes are the norm.
"You're not getting that third corner anymore," Hines Ward said. "You're getting that No. 1 corner who will try to shut you down."
There also are things such as breaking off routes when the quarterback is under siege, the so-called "hot" routes that, if gone unrecognized, can lead to interceptions for touchdowns that can lose a game (re: Santonio Holmes, Cincinnati Bengals, 2009).
"He had no 'hot,' no sight adjustments that he was solely responsible for, to now he has the whole package," Arians explained. "He has to run the entire route tree. He's the backside receiver, he has to be able to sight adjust and know all the protections and on the front side he's now involved in a lot of hots.
"It's like going from 30 percent of the offense to 100 percent."
Having explained the giant leap Wallace must make from his rookie season to this one, Arians and Ward like what they've seen so far.
"I'm amazed at his growth in his second year, for him to be as poised," Ward said.
"He's doing very well," said Arians, with a caveat. "It has yet to be seen, hopefully, what he brings to the table in that role. We have to find out."
Wallace said he is itching to show them. The shoes are big at split end, as Holmes so well displayed on the Steelers' final offensive series of the 2008 season, in Tampa. Yet Wallace's talents may be why the Steelers figured they could give Holmes away when his boorish behavior became unbearable.
"I was looking forward to expanding my role anyway, it just came faster than I expected," Wallace said. "I'm up for the challenge, I can't wait, I'm excited about it. It's nothing I haven't done before."
He played the X or split end position at Mississippi, where he averaged 20.1 yards per catch as a senior, 18.8 yards as a junior and 17 yards as a sophomore.
"That's what I've always done, in college, high school. I always had a high average. I look forward to getting my run after catch up."
But this isn't Mississippi and this isn't O. Perry Walker High School in New Orleans. Wallace will see the best the NFL has at cornerback and safety this season. That means Vontae Davis in Miami, Jairus Byrd in Buffalo, Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets, Nnamdi Asomugha of the Oakland Raiders and more.
"With Santonio and I, I would get doubled, or Santonio would get doubled at the X and Mike was one on one with the corner," Ward said about the 2009 coverages the Steelers faced. "All the time. It was a lot easier in that spot. Every down now, he'll get either their No. 1 or No. 2 corner. He'll see better competition. Of course, he'll get more playing time."
Wallace's reaction: Bring it on. He believes that, even with Holmes gone, the Steelers have quality depth at receiver with Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Arnaz Battle, tight end Heath Miller and rookie Emmanuel Sanders, who is, according to Wallace, "a lot further ahead than I was coming out of college, a lot further."
"I'm excited about that," Wallace said at the prospect of getting double-teamed in coverage. "To be the best, you have to beat the best. I'm looking forward to the challenge.
"We still have Hines, we still have El, we still have Heath, we still have a bunch of players. So if you double team me, we still have so many guys who can carry us in a lot of ways. Even if I don't have a good game, someone else will."
First Published August 7, 2010 12:00 am