Wallace Won’t Be Facing Much New in 2010

In another season, Mike Wallace would be considered the key to the 2010 Steelers’ hopes.

But in an offseason where Ben Roethlisberger has been slapped with a six-game suspension and Willie Colon has popped his Achilles’ tendon, all of a sudden Wallace’s development has taken a seat on the bench compared to the questions about quarterback and right tackle.

Even as the attention on Wallace has diminished, there is one piece of conventional wisdom that keeps cropping up. I’ve read it in multiple versions, but it always sounds something like this:

“But the Steelers will have to see how well Wallace does as a starter now that he will be going up against starting cornerbacks instead of nickel backs.”

Here’s the thing. That’s completely and utterly wrong.

You can worry about how well Wallace does as a second-year pro, and you can wonder if he’ll start getting a lot more double teams now that Santonio Holmes is a Jet. And it’s completely fair to question whether Wallace will be able to provide the consistency Holmes gave the Steelers as a true No. 1 receiver.

But it won’t be because Wallace is now facing starting corners. He faced them all last year.

I went back and logged every pass thrown to Wallace in 2009. There were 71 passes thrown Wallace’s way — he was being guarded by a starter on 60 of them. Nine of the passes (including his most notable game-winning catch against Green Bay) were thrown against backups while two of them were Hail Mary passes where it’s impossible to say which of the five defenders jumping for the ball were guarding Wallace.

Want more proof. Check out Wallace’s biggest plays from the 2009 season.

Week Opponent Yards Defender
9 Bengals 46 Jonathan Joseph
Not a catch, but a pass interference penalty called on Joseph. Wallace was also going against safety help on this play
14 Packers 60 Jarret Bush
Wallace runs by Bush for early first-quarter touchdown
16 Dolphins 54 Nate Jones
Wallace lines up inside of Holmes in rare formation. Beats Jones (and safety help) with pure speed
3 Bengals 51 Jonathan Joseph
Simple streak route, Wallace runs by Joseph catches ball then runs out of bounds
5 Lions 47 William James
Wallace gets past James on a post route for the touchdown
15 Ravens 45 Frank Walker
Game-changer as Wallace helps Steelers get out from own four-yard-line to midfield.
7 Vikings 40 Tyrell Johnson
Wallace goes against zone coverage, Johnson, a safety, is closest to Wallace at the time of the catch
4 Chargers 35 Steve Gregory
Roethlisberger has plenty of time, Wallace finds seam in zone coverage. Gregory is the closest defender.
10 Chiefs 33 Brandon Flowers
Wallace runs down sideline to beat Chiefs’ top cornerback, but then fumbles the ball after the catch.

Of his nine biggest plays last year, only one came against a backup cornerback while one other pass came against a starting safety. The easy explanation is that the Steelers’ formations ensured that Wallace faced starting cornerbacks. With very few exceptions, whenever Wallace entered the game, he lined up as an outside receiver, usually with Hines Ward lining up in the slot on Wallace’s side. Very, very few NFL teams have their corners follow a specific wide receiver all over the field, so usually what would happen is Wallace would face up against one of the opponent’s starting corners while the nickel or dime corner would line up against Ward in the slot.

When the Steelers went to their bunch formation with two receivers and tight end Heath Miller bunched together at the line, Wallace was usually on the outside with Ward lined up to his inside. In those cases, the starting corner was usually lined up on the outside as well, so unless Wallace ran a crossing route (which was rare) he ended up against a starting corner.

On the very rare occasions that Wallace was moved inside into the slot, it was almost always to try to get him a favorable matchup for a deep route. I counted four passes thrown Wallace’s way when he was lined up in the slot (remember that’s out of 71 passes). On all four of those passes, Wallace ran a deep route, three of them fell incomplete, but the fourth was a 54-yard touchdown against the Dolphins.

So if you wonder who may suffer by Holmes’ departure, you should probably worry more about Ward. Many of Ward’s third-down catches, and some of his first and second-down grabs, came when he was lined up inside against nickel and dime backs (and lots of linebackers in zone defenses). If Antwaan Randle-El is the Steelers’ No. 3 receiver, Pittsburgh will either have to move Ward back outside or split Randle-El out wide and ask him to do something he’s not particularly adept at doing – Randle El has six catches of 40-yards or more in his career (Wallace had six last season).

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