Wallace's departure could prove beneficial for Steelers

August 16, 2013
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers' Antonio Brown hauls in a pass to the corner against the Giants' Corey Webster in the preseason opening game.

Can the Steelers wide receivers be more productive without Mike Wallace, one of the top deep threats in the NFL?

The players entrusted with taking over the position -- Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders -- think so. And so, too, does offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

Last year, the receiving corps underachieved as much as, if not more than, any unit on the team, perhaps because so much was expected of them. Dropped passes, inexplicable fumbles and muffed chances in the end zone stood out more and had a bigger impact than the plays they happened to make.

And Brown, for one, is determined to change that.

"I think we can be an awfully lot better," said Brown, who has been elevated to the No. 1 receiver with the departure of Wallace. "That's the mentality of our group -- we're hungry and motivated."

Wallace, Brown and Sanders combined for 174 catches, 2,259 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2012. So how can two of them be better this season without Wallace?

"First and foremost, we got to protect the ball and make big plays," Brown said. "You get caught up trying to make that big play and you lose the ball. And the ball is the most important thing you got. That's what you got to learn to protect."

Haley, though, does not easily dismiss the loss of Wallace, who averaged 17.2 yards per catch in four seasons with the Steelers and had more touchdowns of 40 yards or longer with Ben Roethlisberger (14) than any active duo in the NFL.

But as a unit, Haley believes the wide receivers have a chance to be more productive because he thinks Sanders is better suited to playing on the outside than in the slot, the position he mostly played last year.

With Sanders on the outside, Jerricho Cotchery will be the slot receiver, and Haley thinks he is better suited for that position than Sanders.

"I like the way we're lining up in three-receiver sets," Haley said. "We're playing to both guys strengths by lining A.B. and Emmanuel outside and Jerricho inside because that inside receiver is such a huge part of the run game. And Jerricho has been tremendous.

"Emmanuel did it last year, but it doesn't fit his stature. I think he's a much better outside receiver. I'm excited about lining up with three receivers."

Said Sanders: "There's a lot more traffic in the slot. You got to be worried about linebackers and safeties. On the outside, your primary worry is the cornerback. It's a different feel. The slot is more of a controlled position. In the slot you got to be more patient. You got to give the coverage time to form. On the outside, it's more 1-on-1."

Sanders, though, stopped short of saying he will be more productive on the outside.
"I'm flexible, no matter what," Sanders said. "I'm a football player. It doesn't matter. I like to play football. I got a big opportunity ahead of me. I know if I stay healthy, the rest will take care of itself."

In addition, the Steelers believe they have a receiver -- rookie Markus Wheaton, a third-round choice -- who could be a better fit in their offense than Wallace, who was often referred to as a "one-trick pony" by coach Mike Tomlin.

Wheaton runs good routes, uses his body in the middle of the field better than Wallace and has the type of speed (4.3 in the 40-yard dash) and ability to make plays after the catch.

"I like our offense," said cornerback Ike Taylor, who defends those receivers in practice. "We got a rookie in Wheaton who's not playing like a rookie, doesn't act like a rookie; he looks like a veteran. Of course he's going to make rookie mistakes because he's a rookie. But just watching over the course of the past few weeks, the guy's smart, the guy's polished. I can't wait to see him playing during the season."

The Steelers carried only four receivers on the 53-man roster for most of last season and didn't add a fifth, Plaxico Burress, until Brown injured his ankle in Week 9. They could add another this season, especially if rookie Justin Brown, their sixth-round draft choice, shows something as a return specialist.

Brown transferred from Penn State to Oklahoma for his senior season, in part because he wanted to go to a school that relied more on a pass-oriented attack. He said he wasn't thinking about a possible NFL career when he made the move, but he showed enough in one season -- 73 catches, 879 yards, five touchdowns -- to attract the Steelers' attention.

But after his transfer, Penn State opened its offense under new coach Bill O'Brien and the receiver who replaced Brown, Allen Robinson, had a big year, catching 77 passes for 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns.

"I wasn't surprised," Brown said. "I'd seen Allen practice, I knew how he was as a player, how athletic he was. He just wasn't in the right offense at first. That new offense they got, throwing the ball around, that's good."

But Brown said he did learn something at Penn State that could help him with the Steelers.

"I was learning how to be physical in the run game, blocking," Brown said. "That's real important here, too."

Almost as important as re-discovering production from the wide receivers.