I’m guessing the Steelers will see a significant dip in #7 jerseys this season. Come to think of it, with Willie Parker and Santonio no longer on the roster, there is likely to be a significant nullity in options for your average fan. Who will the masses choose to update their passé Steeler wardrobe? My first guess is Mike Wallace.
If you recall, Wallace started 3rd or 4th on the depth chart last season, depending on which platitude Tomlin was using to describe the offense at the time. He basically beat all-around disappointment Limas Sweed out of Latrobe, a fact not truly actualized by many until week 3 against Cincinnati, where he had 7 catches for 102 yards. While Wallace would not go over the 100 yard mark again, he did haul in 39 balls for over 750 yards last year. That average of over 19 yards per reception (a number higher than any other receiver on the team) points to Wallace shouldering the bulk of the load left in Santonio Holmes’ wake this season.
No one is, or at least SHOULD expect Wallace to fill in completely for Holmes. Santonio had 1,248 receiving yards in ‘09. Thaaaat’s the 7th most by a Steeler. Ever. But, personally, I think this may not be as bad a loss as some are bracing for. Wallace is fast. At times last year, he would be found by Ben to be WIDE open, usually behind the opponents’ secondary. The question will be whether opponents’ defensive coordinators will see him coming as they design their game plan. Wallace will do well to work at finding seems in defenses and improving his yards-after-the-catch, two areas in which he has a bona fide Yoda (SMIREY-TIME SENSEI?) as a teammate for in Hines Ward.
Entering a 13th year in the NFL is something few players are fortunate enough to do. By that time, many are staving off injury, perhaps serving as more of an on-field coach than anything, battling to hold their roster spot. Hines Ward does not have to worry about losing his position. True, injury always looms as an increasing threat (even to a guy without an ACL) but otherwise, Ward has showed little signs of slowing down. In fact, let’s take a look at last year compared with, oh say, 2003:
Year G R Yds Y/R TD Y/G
2003 16 95 1163 12.2 10 72.7
2009 16 95 1167 12.3 6 72.9
Hines Ward had his 2nd highest receiving total EVER last season. At the age of 33, Ward finished 8th in the NFL in receiving yards. It’s also worth noting/griping about the fact that he was not named to the Pro Bowl in 2010, edged out by the likes of WRs with more TDs like Ochocinco and Vinny Jackson. However, with the expanding role of Santonio & Wallace and Roethlisberger’s heavier reliance on Heath Miller in the Red Zone it is no surprise that there would be less touchdowns to spread around in the air? Hines does not have blazing speed a la Wallace, so it’d be unfair to categorize him as a primary receiver, but until demonstrated otherwise, he’s going to be where both Arians and Roethlisberger look in crunch-time situations.
If Ward and Wallace are 1a & 1b, I expect Antwaan Randle El to be a solid 3rd option. What we can expect from El is this: 40-50 receptions for around 400-600 yards. Those are the numbers he’s averaged each of the last eight seasons. Good 3rd receiver stats, abysmal primary receiver ones. Freed from mediocrity in Washington, Randle El was offered more $/years by the Patriots and Ravens, but chose to come back to Pittsburgh and his family. He knows the system, players and city. In addition to being a “good character guy” in the community and otherwise, he presents some match-up wrinkles that D coordinators will have to account for. We all remember his last completed pass as a Steeler…
Arnaz Battle is a 30 year old veteran coming over via free agency from the 49ers. Battle only had 5 passes thrown his way in San Fran in 15 games, last season, so expectations should be tempered. He’ll make the roster out of camp if for no other reason than he possesses talent as a special teams return man and possible 4th option in 4/5-wide sets.
2010 draftee Emanuel Sanders is the player in this group with the most upward mobility. Sanders displays similar break away speed to Wallace (4.41 time in the 40-yard at the combine and a combine-best 126 in the broadjump…whatever that means), but is undersized for a standard NFL wide-out. His selection in the 3rd round and potential as a return man pretty much guarantee he’ll at worst make the rook practice squad. But with guys like Battle, Ward and Randle El ahead of him an injury could have him catching balls on Sunday in no time.
Tyler Grisham, Isaiah Williams (Terp), Brandon London and Antonio Brown all will be taking snaps in Latrobe, with Grisham the only one with any sort of chance (and an outside one at that) of making it to Heinz Field.
Being as objective as I can, there’s simply no way a rational fan can expect the Steelers’ pass-catchers to put up the same collective number as last season. The loss of Holmes, while a potential boon in the PR department, means a murkier stratification of the receiving corps. This, however, is how Arians prefers things, with no clear-cut 1st or 2nd wide out, merely rotating in situationally. Ward and Wallace likely benefited from Santonio’s big year in ’09 and the resulting lapse in attention as most D coordinators rotated coverage to key on him is something that will decline to a degree. Follow me here: Wallace will be hard-pressed to put up Santonio #s, Ward hard-pressed to duplicate his #s and Randle El to put up Wallace’s #s.
My guess? We’ll see a lot more short passing, play-action dumping and screens to compensate for what will be tighter coverage at the line. We have the personnel for it. Ward, Randle El and Battle all demonstrate good hands and an ability to elude initial tacklers. Not to mention Leftwich’s presence at the beginning will mean more of a “training-wheels” approach to the offense the first few games, with the occasional bomb to Wallace. But, we’re trying to gear our O more toward the run anyway, right?
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