Steelers Sunday Spotlight: Speed kills (and so does the lack of it)
If, as expected, Mike Wallace leaves in free agency, there will be no easy -- or inexpensive -- way to replace his speed.
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In a season gone bad, few positions took the blame as hard as did the Steelers' receivers. The Young Money crew underperformed, dropped passes and fumbles that could have salvaged two or three victories and turned 8-8 into a playoff team. Yet somewhat lost by the end in the disappointing play of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, was the fact that one receiver had one of the best seasons at his position in the history of the franchise.
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Tight end Heath Miller starred through all of it. He caught 71 passes for 816 yards to lead the team in both categories. His eight touchdowns tied Wallace for the team lead and his 50 points, counting a two-point conversion, led all position players. He won the team's most valuable player award by a landslide.
Miller has more receptions (408) than any tight end in team history and ranks third overall.
Yet typical of the Steelers' 2012 season, Miller was severely injured in the next-to-final game Dec. 23 against Cincinnati. He left with two torn knee ligaments that required surgery, the ACL and MCL, and damage to the PCL that will heal on its own.
So the Steelers are left with one more major blow to their collection of receivers entering 2013. They do not know when Miller will be ready to play again. Rashard Mendenhall had ACL surgery after last season and missed the first three games of 2012. What do the Steelers do while they wait for Miller to return? David Paulson had a nice rookie season as Miller's backup, and since they will not find another close to Miller's ability without drafting him on the first round, they are likely to go with Paulson and fill in from there until Miller is ready.
Losing their leading receiver for untold stretches to start the next season would be a setback under any circumstances. They're likely to lose another, Wallace. He went from Pro Bowl receiver to third on the team with 64 receptions and a career-low 13.1-yard average per catch. His contract holdout throughout the spring and preseason turned off some in the front office and the coaching staff.
Now he is an unrestricted free agent and it appears Wallace and the Steelers will part ways in March. They gave him their best offer last year, reportedly averaging $10 million annually over five years, and he turned it down. They stopped negotiating with Wallace once camp started and he did not show up, and quickly turned their attention to Brown. He signed a five-year contract for $42.5 million that included an $8.5 million signing bonus.
Essentially, Brown's contract signaled the end of Wallace's career in Pittsburgh.
So here is what they have left: Brown, Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. That strike much fear into the Baltimore Ravens' secondary?
Brown, the team's MVP in 2011, became their MDP in 2012, most disappointing player. A Pro Bowl return man the previous season, he averaged just 6.8 yards on 27 punt returns and did not return a kickoff. He did finish second on the team with 66 receptions and scored five touchdowns, but his bobbles seemed more memorable.
With the Steelers ahead by seven in the fourth quarter in Dallas, Brown fumbled on a punt return at his 44. Not only did that ruin an excellent opportunity to go up by double figures, the Cowboys tied the game on that series. Brown also possibly cost the Steelers a victory in Oakland when, up 31-28, he caught a medium-range pass over the middle but was stripped of the ball at the Raiders 45 with 10:45 left in the game. He fumbled four times during the season, recovering one of his own for a TD in Oakland. He did not fumble at all in 2011.
Sanders, who enters the year as a restricted free agent, caught 44 passes for a team-high 14.2-yard average, but he, too, had problems with drops and injuries.
Even if Brown bounces back to 2011 form, the problem for the Steelers is that both he and Sanders have similar styles. Their strengths are their quickness and their ability to gain yards after the catch, but they are not going to cause defenses to worry about their deep routes. Cotchery is a good possession receiver.
What the Steelers need is to find another Wallace, someone with the kind of speed and ability that makes him a deep threat and will not permit the secondary to contract. They do not have that anywhere on their roster and it will be a priority for them. Since paying for a proven receiver in free agency is out of the question, they will have to locate one in the draft.
California's Keenan Allen is generally regarded as the best prospect, perhaps even a top-15 pick. He is 6-3, 210 and while he does not have Wallace-like speed, he has enough to get deep, especially for his size. He is mending from a left knee injury to the PCL.
Another likely first-round pick is Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson, who also is 6-3 and weighs 205. He's not as polished as Allen and has only 4.46 speed.
The only wide receiver the Steelers have drafted in the first round in the past dozen years was Santonio Holmes in 2006. They have shown a good ability to find them in the later rounds, and they may have to do it again in this year's draft.
No matter where they get him, they need to add a receiver who can get open deep, something every team in the NFL wants.
First Published February 3, 2013 12:00 am