Long before Ben Roethlisberger suffered a potential season-ending injury against the Kansas City Chiefs on opening night, farther back than when Antonio Brown injured his ankle the week before, even as far back as before the beginning of the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ training camp, Mike Wallace let the world know that he believed he was an elite receiver. Wallace didn’t proclaim it himself, but his refusal to sign a new contract and his demands during negotiations intimated as much.
Countless weeks and many months later, Wallace is still looking to prove himself worthy of that big deal the Steelers wouldn’t give him. Through nine games of the season so far, Wallace has the solid production line of 42 receptions for 539 yards and six touchdowns. His average per catch, 12.8, is dramatically lower than it has been throughout his career, a low of 16.6 in three full seasons.
A combination of scheme change and missed opportunities has cost Wallace significant opportunities to add to those numbers. Todd Haley has crafted an offense around Ben Roethlisberger that is primarily based on running the football and completing short passes to slow the opposition’s pass rush. It was intended to keep Roethlisberger’ upright and healthy for the playoff push, and while it did limit his exposure, he did eventually find his way to the sidelines.
Now that Roethlisberger is out, Wallace should get more opportunities deep. Generally it’s not good news for a receiver if his team loses his starting quarterback to injury, but because the Steelers don’t trust Byron Leftwich to carry the offense down the field in the same way they do Roethlisberger, it should actually help Wallace. Wallace will see plenty more deep targets from the strong arm of Leftwich, while opposing defenses will be more willing to key in on the run without Roethlisberger. That is, until Leftwich can prove himself going deep to Wallace.
Furthermore, if Wallace really is a superstar receiver who is capable of leading this team’s passing attack. He, like Calvin Johnson, AJ Green and Larry Fitzgerald repeatedly do, must show that he is capable of making impact plays no matter who is throwing him the football.
Not only does the scheme change after the loss of Roethlisberger help Wallace, but in a way so does the loss of Brown. Before the wide receiver went out with an ankle injury, the Steelers were consistently rotating their quartet of receivers in and out of the lineup. Against the Chiefs, each of Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and Wallace were clearly on a totem pole, with Wallace at the top. Outside of the offensive line members, Wallace was the only one on offense who played every single snap. That was the first time that happened all season.
Because Sanders is a matchup problem, and Cotchery is a fine receiver in his own right, defenses still won’t feel comfortable rotating their coverage to Wallace any more than they do when Brown is in the starting lineup. That means he should have more opportunities with no drop off in situation. Of course, there will be a drop off in quality at the quarterback position, but Leftwich is an experienced veteran who should be able to consistently give Wallace opportunities to make big plays.
Wallace’s touchdown proved to be vital in Monday’s victory over the Chiefs. That could be a telling sign to start a big run for the receiver.
Cian tweets mostly NFL @Cianaf