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Steelers position-by-position review: wide receivers

February 19, 2012 By: Admin Category: Uncategorized

This is part 5 in our position-by-position review of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers.  If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:

If you haven’t read Part 1 (offensive tackles), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 2 (guards), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 3 (centers), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 4 (tight ends), click here.

Today we will be looking at the Steelers’ wide receivers.

The wide receivers emerged as arguably the Steelers’ greatest strength in 2011.  The Steelers have always been known for having great linebackers, but the current crop of wide receivers may actually outshine the linebackers.  In fact, they may be the most talented group of wide receivers in the NFL.

What other team can boast two 1,000 yard receivers, a future Hall-of-Famer, another young wide receiver who has the potential to be a 1,000 yard receiver, and a veteran receiver who would start on some NFL teams?  That’s exactly what the Steelers have on their wide receiving corps.

Let’s take a look at them individually, starting with…….

Mike Wallace

Going into the year, we knew that Mike Wallace was going to have a great season.  He had already established himself as one of the fastest wide receivers in the NFL, and he was building great chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger.  By the end of the 2010 season, Wallace had already become Big Ben’s favorite target.

Wallace had another 1,000 yard season in 2011, and he is a player who should play a significant role in the Steelers’ future.  The only problem is that Wallace is a restricted free agent this season.  Because of his incredible speed, Wallace will draw a lot of attention as a free agent.  The Steelers have said that signing him to a long-term contract is one of their highest priorities.  However, doing so is going to be expensive, and the Steelers are already over the salary cap.

The Steelers could slap the franchise tag on Wallace, but that will cost them almost $14 million.  So that’s not a very appealing option.  So the team has to hope that they can get even more veteran players to restructure their contracts.  LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons have already restructured theirs.  But the team will need to find far more money than that.

Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown came into training camp as the #4 receiver on the depth chart.  Hines Ward and Mike Wallace were established veteran starters, and Emmanuel Sanders had performed better than him during the previous season and was #3 on the depth chart.  But injuries among the wide receivers made Antonio Brown the primary wide receiver during the preseason.

By mid-season, Brown had supplanted Mike Wallace as Big Ben’s favorite target.  In fact, for long stretches it seemed like Roethlisberger had forgotten that Mike Wallace was even on the team.  That speaks volumes about how much talent Brown has.

WR Antonio Brown

Brown is probably the Steelers’ most talented receiver when it comes to gaining yards after the catch.  It’s those running skills that also made Brown a Pro Bowl kick returner.

Did I mention that Brown’s teammates voted him the team’s MVP?  Pretty impressive for a young guy.  I think this kid has a future with the team.

Hines Ward

Hines Ward is clearly one of the all-time Pittsburgh Steelers.  He holds just about every receiving record, and he’s basically been the face of the franchise since Jerome  Bettis retired.  Ward’s place is Steelers lore is assured.

However, Ward is no longer the most talented receiver on the Steelers’ roster.  After a brilliant career 14 year career, Ward will be 36 years old during the 2012 season.  By NFL standards, that’s ancient.  Moreover, Ward ended the 2011 season as the #5 wide receiver on the depth chart.  Even Jericho Cotchery had surpassed Ward.

Ward’s current contract pays him too much money to be a #5 wide receiver.  Moreover, a #5 wide receiver would have to play special teams, and it would be insulting to Ward to ask him to do that.

Ward has said that he wants to play another season for the Steelers, and that he’s willing to play for the league minimum for veterans.  But frankly, I don’t want to see Ward do that.  I love and respect Hines too much to see him sitting the bench behind younger, faster, wide receivers.

Emmanuel Sanders

2011 was basically a lost season for Emmanuel Sanders.  He struggled with injuries, and was only a shadow of the player that we saw in 2010.  Unlike Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, Sanders isn’t a speedster.  He’s more quick than fast.  He specializes on finding gaps in the defense.  That makes him an ideal slot receiver.

Sanders’ future is going to depend largely on how successful he can be at remaining healthy.  But if he can put the foot injuries behind him, then he will be a part of one of the most dynamic receiving trios in Steelers history.

Jericho Cotchery

Cotchery ended the 2011 season as the #4 wide receiver on the Steelers’ depth chart.  Cotchery is an unrestricted free agent, and I would assume that he’d like to be a starter.  That’s just not going to happen with the Steelers.

I really liked what I saw from Cotchery last year.  He didn’t really get much playing time until the second half of the season.  But once he did, he showed that he could be a reliable target for Big Ben.

I’d love to see Cotchery return to the Steelers in 2012.  However, I doubt that’s going to happen.

Is it Hines’ time?

October 20, 2011 By: Admin Category: Players

The Pittsburgh Steelers have wrestled with the question of age for several seasons.  The majority of the starting players on their defensive front 7 are over 30 years old.

Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, James Farrior, and James Harrison are all closer to the end of their careers than either fans, or apparently the Steelers’ coaches, seem to want to admit.  The same is true for Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark.  And key backup players like Chris Hoke and Larry Foote, aren’t spring chickens either.

We’ve all heard the cries for more youth on the defense.  But what I haven’t heard very much is cries for youth on the offense.  Specifically at wide receiver.

The Steelers have a talented group of young wide receivers who have given fans reason to believe that the team’s future at the position is bright.

Mike Wallace is already the team’s top receiver, and he’s also emerged as one of the most dangerous receiving threats in the NFL.  Wallace will lead the Steelers’ receiving corps for years to come.

Second year receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are dynamic playmakers.  They both have speed to burn, and are proving to coaches that they deserve more playing time.

Antonio Brown has caught 18 passes for 262 yards through 6 games.  He’s averaging 14.6 yards per catch.  Emmanuel Sanders has caught 8 passes for 127 yards, and is averaging 15.9 yards per catch.

Hines Ward is the veteran of the receiving corp.  He’s 35 years old, and in his 14th season in the NFL.  More importantly, Ward is the Steelers’ all-time receptions leader, and he’s one of the most beloved players in Steelers’ history.

And therein lies the problem.  Fans love Hines.  Coaches love Hines.  Players love Hines.  Nobody want to be the one to disrespect Hines.

But at this point in his career, Hines Ward is no longer the player he once was.  Ward was never a fast player.  But at 35 years old, Hines is just plain slow.  He still has great hands, but he can’t really get separation from defenders.

Ward is still targeted routinely by Big Ben.  In fact, only Mike Wallace has more receptions than Ward.  However, Ward has the lowest yards per catch of the 4 primary wide receivers.  Antonio Brown has fewer catches than Ward, but he has more yards.  And Emmanuel Sanders is averaging over 5 yards more per catch than Ward.  Do you know how much 5 extra yards per catch would help the Steelers?

Sanders excels as a possession receiver, just like Ward.  The difference is that he’s much faster.  So he can get to the spot faster than Ward.  The same is true for Antonio Brown.  If the Steelers played Wallace, Brown, and Sanders, they’d have a trio of speedy receivers who could blow the top off of any defense.  That would open up things for the running game, and it would allow Heath Miller to run free underneath.  Or it would simply allow Big Ben to pick his target as he launches bomb after bomb over the top of the defense.

None of that can happen with Ward in the lineup.  But I believe that both coaches and fans are willing to accept the status quo out of respect for Ward, and in appreciation for the contribution that he’s made over the years.

It’s hard to say goodbye to star players.  Just think about when Jerome Bettis was no longer good enough to start.  Or Franco Harris.  Or John Stallworth.  or Louis Lipps.  Nobody wanted to see them go.  But for the good of the team, we knew that the time had come.

I love Hines Ward.  He’s still probably the best blocking receiver in the NFL.  But he’s no longer an elite wide receiver in the NFL.  Moreover, he’s not going to be able to hold Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders off for much longer.

Respect keep Hines on the field for now.  But pretty soon, the raw talent of Brown and Sanders is going to trump respect.  And that’s going to be a hard day for fans and coaches alike.  But that day is coming.  And it’s coming soon.

Maybe it’s already here.

Steelers beat Packers to stay in playoff race

December 20, 2009 By: Admin Category: Post-Game Reports

Thank you, God.  Thank you, God.  Thank you, God.  Thank you, God.  Thank you, God.

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the Steelers’ 37-36 win over the Green Bay Packers.

In a game that unfolded totally differently than most experts predicted, the Steelers kept their playoff hopes alive.  Prior to the game, most experts assumed that a game featuring the Steelers and Packers, two of the best defenses in the NFL, would be a low-scoring defensive struggle.  Instead, it turned out to be a high-scoring offensive shootout.  Who woulda thunk it?

The two teams combined for 973 total yards of offense.  Some “defensive struggle”.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had the best game of his career, passing for 503 yards.  He was 29-46 with no interceptions and 3 touchdowns. 

Hmmmmmm, this looks familiar.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers tried his best to keep pace, finishing with 383 passing yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions.  Rodgers also rushed for a touchdown.

While it was exciting to watch such an offensive shootout, it was a sad day for both defenses.  The Packers surrendered 537 net yards, and the Steelers defense surrendered 436 net yards.  That’s not something that either team will be bragging about.

Despite the positive outcome of the game, a few aspects were still a bit troubling.

Firstly, the Steelers’ secondary continues to look like a high school junior varsity team.  William Gay was burned repeatedly.  Ryan Clark was beat badly on a touchdown.  Tyrone Carter took his fellow defenders out of a play, thus allowing a Packers’ touchdown.  And none of the Steelers secondary looked like they remembered how to tackle.

Secondly, the offense still lacks balance.  The team only ran the ball 19 times.  Meanwhile, they passed the ball 46 times.  Mike Tomlin says that he wants the offense to be balanced.  Well, 19 runs and 46 passes is NOT balanced.

Thirdly, the Steelers had another 4th quarter letdown.  Sure, they walked away with a win, but they allowed the Packers to score 22 points in the 4th quarter.  They had only yielded 14 total point in the first 3 quarters.  So why can’t the defense play a consistent 60 minutes?

Finally, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made one of the most baffling calls that I’ve ever seen.  After taking a 2 point lead with 4:03 remaining in the game, the Steelers chose to go for an on-sides kick.  Unfortunately, the play failed and the Packers got the ball at the Steelers’ 39 yard line.  In less than 2 minutes, the Packers scored a touchdown and took the lead.

Fortunately for the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger led a textbook 2-minute drill that was culminated by a touchdown pass to Mike Wallace that looked eerily reminiscent of Roethlisberger’s game-winning pass to Santonio Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII.

Mike Wallace imitates Santonio Holmes

Mike Wallace imitates Santonio Holmes

So the Steelers ended their losing streak and kept their playoff hopes alive.

They also got help from several of their AFC rivals who are also fighting for their playoff lives.  Denver, Jacksonville, Miami, and the New York Jets all lost.  Those losses mean that the Steelers are still mathematically in the playoff race.

I think Steeler Nation needs to say one more collective “Thank you, God”.


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Wallace is our man

November 12, 2009 By: Admin Category: Players

Steelers rookie wide receiver Mike Wallace wasn’t drafted until the third round of the 2009 NFL draft.  He was actually the 10th wide receiver taken in the draft.  That’s right, 10th!  I’ll bet a lot of NFL general managers wish they could have a “do over”.

If you listen to NFL analysts, you’d think that Minnesota’s rookie wide receiver Percy Harvin was the runaway star of the wide receiver class of 2009.  In fact, by listening to them, you’d think that Harvin was the ONLY member of the class.

Admittedly, Harvin has been pretty good in the kick return game.  He has 860 return yards, and is leading all rookies by a long way.  But if we eliminate kick returns and look exclusively at their production as wide receivers, I’d argue that Wallace has been the best in the class so far.  Wallace is in the top 5 in almost all statistical categories among rookie receivers, and he leads in many of them.

Steelers WR Mike Wallace

Steelers rookie WR Mike Wallace

Wallace is tied for 4th in total number of receptions.

Name Team Receptions
Austin Collie IND 32
Percy Harvin MIN 28
Johnny Knox CHI 28
Jeremy Maclin PHI 25
Mike Wallace PIT 25

A more important statistic, in my opinion, is receiving yardage. That statistic shows how effective the receiver has been in actually moving the ball down the field. In this area, Mike Wallace is tops among rookie receivers.

Name Team Yards
Mike Wallace PIT 437
Hakeem Nicks NYG 407
Percy Harvin MIN 369
Austin Collie IND 356
Johnny Knox CHI 340

The reason Wallace has been able to accumulate so many yards is not primarily due to his number of receptions. Rather it is how effective he has been at getting LONG receptions.

To put it simply, Wallace has been much more effective than his rookie peers at burning NFL cornerbacks for long gains.  I projected that this would be the case coming out of Steelers training camp after watching Wallace burn Steelers cornerbacks just about every day.

Wallace leads all rookie wide receivers in receptions of 20 yards or more.

Name Team 20+ yards
Mike Wallace PIT 9
Hakeem Nicks NYG 6
Percy Harvin MIN 6
Mohamed Mossaquoi CLE 6
Jeremy Maclin PHI 4

In fact, Wallace is tied for third in the entire NFL in receptions of 20 yards or more.  That’s pretty impressive for a rookie.

Wallace is also tied With Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin for second in touchdowns among rookie wide receiver with 3. The key difference is that Maclin and Harvin were both 1st round draft picks, while Wallace was a 3rd rounder.

Noticeably absent from all of these lists of rookie statistical leaders is Darius Heyward-Bey, the first wide receiver selected in the draft.  Heyward-Bey has accumulated a whopping 5 receptions for a total of 74 yards.  Way to go, Al Davis!

Mike Wallace has already shown himself to be as good as any rookie wide receiver from the 2009 draft.  His statistics prove that.  He is just another example of the superior scouting of Kevin Colbert and the Steelers organization.

Steeler Nation already knows how good Mike Wallace is.  I just wish that NFL analysts and other “experts” would come to the same realization.  When they do, Mike Wallace will start being included in the discussions about potential  offensive rookie of the year award winners.

Percy Harvin may ultimately win the award, but Mike Wallace won’t make it easy on him.


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What have we learned so far?

November 03, 2009 By: Admin Category: Uncategorized

The NFL just finished week 8.  That’s the halfway point in the season (although the Steelers have only played 7 games).  With the Steelers coming off of a bye week, it seemed like a good time to reflect back on the season so far to see what we’ve learned so far about the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers.

These are in no particular order.  But as I think back to what has occurred so far this season, these are some thoughts that come to mind.

1.  The Steelers could easily be 7-0.
The Steelers find themselves with a 5-2 record.  However, the two losses could have just as easily been wins.  In the loss to the Bengals, the Steelers dominated just about every statistical category.  From yards of offense to time of possession, the Steelers were dominant.  Yet, a dropped touchdown by Limas Sweed, a missed field goal by Jeff Reed, and poor 4th quarter defense somehow led to a loss.

Similarly, in the 17-14 loss to the Chicago  Bears, the Steelers led in most statistical categories.  Most viewers would probably have thought that the game was a blowout in the Steelers favor.  But untimely turnovers, and two missed field goals by Jeff Reed led to yet another unexpected Steelers loss

If not for two poorly played 4th quarters, the Steelers would be right there with the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts as the last remaining undefeated teams in the NFL.

2. The Steelers are a passing offense
I know that that is anathema to some Steelers fans.  After all, the Steelers have ALWAYS been a power running team.  In some fans’ minds, the Steelers SHOULD always be a power running team.  But the reality is that this offense is a passing offense.  Just ask Big Ben.

The Steelers’ passing attack is ranked #5 in the NFL, and they actually average more yards per game than the potent New Orleans Saints offense led by Drew Brees.  Chew on that for a moment. 

The Steelers have 3 receivers among the NFL’s top 30 in total number of receptions.  They have 4 receivers among the top 40 in the NFL in receiving yards.  Are these the Steelers that we’re talking about?

While the Steelers have the #5 passing attack in the NFL, their rushing attack is ranked #18.  The Steelers don’t have a running  back in the top 15 in the NFL in rushing yards.

3. Big Ben still takes too many sacks
This is becoming a broken record.  I am not even going to try to ascertain whether the fault lies with the offensive line, or with Big Ben himself.  But suffice it to say that Ben spends far too much time on his back. 

Roethlisberger has already been sacked 20 times.  He’s well on his way to another 40+ sacks season.  I’m no doctor, but that can’t be good for his health and longevity.

Roethlisberger is sacked....again.

Roethlisberger is sacked....again.

4.  The Steelers pass defense has still not played to their full potential
While the Steelers’ run defense is ranked #1 in the NFL, their pass defense is ranked #17.  That’s a big departure from last year’s defense that was ranked #1 against the pass.

The biggest contributor to the decline has been the absence of Troy Polamalu.  Now that Polamalu is back, I expect to see the Steelers pass defense show a marked improvement.

5.  Limas Sweed is not the answer to the Steelers’ #3 receiver need
Drop.  Drop.  Drop.  ‘Nuff said.

6.  Mike Wallace IS the answer to the Steelers’ #3 receiver need
I’m starting to feel like a broken record, but I’ll say it again; I love Mike Wallace.  The kid doesn’t play like a rookie.  He’s got dependable hands, and he’s got speed to burn.  That’s a deadly combination for a #3 receiver.  Because Wallace is the #3 receiver, he’s usually matched up against the opponent’s #3 cornerback, or against a safety.  Wallace’s speed would pose a challenge to a #1 cornerback.  A #3 cornerback or the average safety has absolutely no chance against the kid.

Steelers WR Mike Wallace

Steelers WR Mike Wallace

7.  It’s still too early to assess Rashard Mendenhall
I know that some fans want to anoint Rashard Mendenhall as the next great Steelers running back.  And Mendenhall’s 5.4 yards per carry average is compelling evidence of his potential.  But Mendenhall has to do a better job of protecting the ball before he can truly be trusted to carry the load for the Steelers. 

8.  Jeff Reed’s antics may have insured his exit from Pittsburgh
I have always been a supporter of Jeff Reed.  When he missed those field goals that cost us games against the Bears and Bengals earlier this year, I stood up for Reed.  When he had his little incident at Sheetz, I also stood up for Reed.  However, Reed’s antics are growing tiresome.

Reed has been one of the most dependable kickers in the NFL during his time with the Steelers.  However, Reed is also the player who is most likely to embarrass the organization off the field.  He doesn’t seem to understand that Steeler Nation takes great pride in the fact that the Steelers are excellent off the field, as well as on the field.  We know that guys like Terrell Owens, De’Angelo Hall, Jeremy Shockey, Tank Johnson, or Randy Moss could never play for the Steelers, despite their considerable talent.  So if we wouldn’t bring in guys with that type of all-world talent, why do we continue to tolerate Reed’s misdeeds?

So there you have it, Steeler Nation.  Those are some of the things that we’ve learned so far this season.  Are there any other observations that we’ve forgotten?  Do you disagree with any of the observations that we’ve made?  What have YOU learned about the Steelers so far?  We’d love to hear your thoughts.


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