Wallace's absence strains Steelers' depth
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The continuing holdout of Mike Wallace goes beyond the Steelers missing one of the great deep threats in the NFL. It cuts into their depth at wide receiver, and, while that may not pose a problem at the moment with a 90-man roster, it soon could become one.
With Wallace, the Steelers would possess one of the best receiving foursomes in the league that includes team MVP Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. That group is buttressed by tight end Heath Miller and whichever backs emerge as targets in the passing game.
They would seem to have good depth and versatility to go with Ben Roethlisberger, one of the best quarterbacks in the league. If Wallace continues his holdout, the depth at wide receiver, however, is reduced to three, and no one has emerged to help ease that shortage after a week of practice.
"I haven't seen any distinct separation at this point, but it's still early" coordinator Todd Haley said Friday.
It was around this time last year that Sanders had to have more surgery on a foot after having both fixed by surgeons early in the year. Sanders has said his feet are fine, but he did not practice Friday night, although coach Mike Tomlin held him out of practice the other day on artificial turf as to not court trouble. Losing Sanders, Cotchery or Brown would be certain trouble for the Steelers because there really is no one else to move in. At least, no one has shown they can yet.
"There's some ability," Haley said. "But, at that position, there is some pressure to try to get one of those guys kind of come to the surface. So we'll push them hard, and you'll see that position getting coached pretty vigilantly trying to get that to happen."
The only player with any kind of experience behind them is Derrick Williams, a 26-year-old out of Penn State who was not on an NFL roster last season. He caught nine passes in 18 games over the 2009 and '10 seasons with Detroit.
That's it. Everyone else is a first-year pro or a rookie. The only receiver drafted by the Steelers this year was Toney Clemons of Valley High School and Colorado; they took him in the seventh round.
Haley puts Clemons in the group with others as inconsistent through the first week of practice in pads.
"We tell them all, we don't want yo-yo players -- good one day, bad the next," Haley said. "We're looking for a guy who consistently comes to work and is the same guy. At the same time, special teams will help define that, too. Those guys have been put on notice, whether it's Arnaz Battle from years past, there's always one of those guys, that's how he makes it. That'll be a big determining factor, too."
Battle, their former special-teams captain released early in the year, was technically a wide receiver who made the squad for his performance on special teams. Usually, those players come from a group of receivers, defensive backs or linebackers.
Clemons might have a slight edge over others because he has good size at 6 feet 2, 210 pounds and decent speed to go with it. He echoed his coach's words when he noted that the toughest thing through the first week is "just staying consistent and not being up and down and be on a roller coaster. Just be the same guy every day, and try to make plays and get better every day."
But do the Steelers have time for these young players to find themselves? The longer Wallace holds out, the more chance he could extend his absence into the season and perhaps right up until the final six games. That's when he would have to be on the roster in order for him to become an unrestricted free agent in '13.
"It's very critical, because you get thin real quick if we don't have a couple of those guys," Haley said of someone in the pack rising to No. 4 or No. 5. "But, like I said, there is ability, and there are some flashes of things you like to see. I don't think the cupboard's bare, it's young."
It's also early, but if the status quo holds -- Wallace stays away and no one joins the top three -- the Steelers may be forced to look elsewhere, either a current free agent (Plaxico Burress anyone?) or via trade.
An anticipated competition between two first-round draft choices at defensive end has not materialized in the first week of practice in pads in Latrobe.
As it was last season, Ziggy Hood ('09) starts on the left side and Cameron Heyward ('11) backs up Brett Keisel on the right. Hood started 10 games for an injured Aaron Smith in '10 and 14 games for Smith last season. This will be the first season he enters as the starter, provided things stay this way.
"I know what to do, I don't have to worry about learning the plays from somebody else," said Hood, describing what it means to enter this season No. 1 on the left. "I have the plays down."
He also cut some excess, he said, although he still weighs 305.
"I feel physically bigger. I dropped a lot of fat. The scale still reads 305, but I feel physically bigger."
His mentor, Smith, came to be honored by the Steelers and their fans and officially announce his retirement from football. Hood learned plenty from Smith in his three seasons with him, including techniques applied off the field.
"You see a lot of old guys put Icy Hot on themselves, like Aaron" Hood said of the pain-relieving cream. "I see why he did it because it warmed himself up, so I started doing it. I'd rather do it now than in my later-on years when everything would catch up to me at the last minute."
• The Steelers added cornerback Josh Victorian (No. 35) to replace Terry Carter, who was waived injured. Victorian has been with three teams since 2011 without making a roster.
• Roethlisberger threw early in practice but was held out of the 11-on-11 drills. Keisel and running back John Clay did not practice. None is known to be injured.
• Guard Willie Colon and defensive end Cam Heyward got into a tussle, and then Colon squared up and fired a punch to Heyward's helmet. They were then separated.
• Colon (ankle) and Isaac Redman (groin) came away with injuries Friday night.
First Published August 4, 2012 12:00 am