Mike Tomlin wasn’t joking when he demoted Mike Wallace last week.
Since becoming a full-time starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010, Wallace has played in 88.4 percent of all offensive snaps according to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. This past Sunday, he only played in 61 percent of them.
Following Tomlin’s decision to demote Wallace to co-starter, Wallace seemed to be unphased (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
"I don't know, you have to ask Coach T," Wallace said. "I just play. It really doesn't matter. I still have to do what I have to do, regardless of what the situation is. Coach does everything for a reason."
Tomlin did do it for a reason and that reason is Wallace has not been good enough this season.
After an outstanding 23-game stretch from the start of the 2010 season to the middle of the 2011 season in which Wallace had 11 100-yard receiving games and 15 touchdowns, his production has seen a steep decline.
Over the past 21 games, Wallace has nine touchdowns and only one 100-yard receiving game. His big play ability has all but been lost as he has had eight games in which he has averaged fewer than 10 yards per reception.
One of the major problems with Wallace this season is that he has been unable to adjust his game to the coverages that defenses are throwing at him.
Wallace seemed to break away from the “one-trick pony” comment from Tomlin a couple of years ago with a strong start to the 2011 season. He was becoming more than just a guy who could run behind defenders.
However, in Todd Haley’s dink-and-dunk offense, Wallace has not adjusted and maybe that missed time in training camp wasn’t a good thing as he is still trying to grow into his new role (via ESPN.com).
I’m kind of understanding my role in the offense, it’s not just to go deep anymore, [it’s] kind of short, and it’s just learning to accept that, Wallace said after the win against the New York Giants. My history and being the kind of player I am, I like deep plays. But I’ve got to continue staying in the game and, like I said, catch a short one and make it long. That’s going to be my focus for the rest of the year.
Against the Giants, Wallace used his speed to break a quick screen into a 51-yard touchdown. It was one of the few times that he has shown promise as a short-yardage receiver.
Besides struggling in the quick passing game, Wallace has dropped a number of catchable balls and—at times—does not appear to give the effort necessary to make the tough catches.
Rarely does Wallace come try to fight through a defender to make a reception or come back to an underthrown ball. At the very least he could draw a pass interference call.
But while it is fashionable to bash Wallace, he is still second on the team—behind only Heath Miller—with 53 receptions and leads the team with 616 receiving yards.
While he is only averaging 11.8 yards per reception, Wallace still has six touchdowns and leads the team with 93 targets.
Wallace just isn’t catching enough of those targeted passes right now and that is why he has been demoted.
Which receiver should get more snaps over the final four games?
The combination of Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders—along with Miller—provide the Steelers’ quarterbacks three excellent options to use in the short passing game that Haley has installed.
Both receivers can get off of the line of scrimmage and are terrific route runners. They have also proved to be more dependable than Wallace this year.
Brown is the top option when he is healthy and should soon enough be back leading the team in receptions.
But the real story is the play of Sanders.
Sanders is finally realizing his potential with 39 receptions for 549 yards and a team-high 14.1 yards per reception and 10 receptions of 20 yards or more.
There is big play potential from Sanders as well. Just last week he had a chance to score on a long catch-and-run, but fumbled the ball while trying to switch arms.
The past two weeks, Sanders has become a bigger part of the offense with 10 receptions for 135 yards as he has been able to use his excellent hands and quickness to exploit defenses.
But as good as Sanders are Brown are in this offense, they still cannot do what Wallace can.
They have a combined two touchdowns and do not scare the defense the way that Wallace does.
Wallace was wide open for an easy touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens, but Charlie Batch threw the ball over his head.
Defenses still double-team Wallace a keep a safety deep for the threat of a deep ball. In fact, if a quarterback could hit him in stride, Wallace would have a couple more touchdowns to add to his total.
Wallace may not fit with what the Steelers are trying to do on offense this season and that is fine, he deserves fewer snaps, but conversely, maybe the Steelers need to get back to using him with what he does best.
Over the final four games of the season, Sanders should continue to play more snaps while Wallace sits, but Haley should find ways to put Wallace in a situation to succeed and that is to get him the ball down field.
Pittsburgh has a talented trio of receivers and it is imperative that each is used to their respective talents and for Wallace, that talent is his deep speed. Let him be that “one-trick pony” once again.