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Why Mike Wallace Is Struggling, and What It Means for Steelers WR in 2013

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Why Mike Wallace Is Struggling, and What It Means for Steelers WR in 2013
Joe Sargent/Getty Images
This would have been a touchdown in 2009-2011.

How does a wide receiver catch seven of his 11 targets for 112 yards with two touchdowns and still get booed by the home crowd?

Simple.

Despite his name, Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace is no 60-minute man, and his disappointing 2012 season has many fans counting down the time until he is gone.

Even though Wallace is on pace to match his career-high of 72 receptions from last year and already has eight receiving touchdowns, like he did in 2011, he has not been the same player in first-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s offense. After averaging 18.7 yards per reception from 2009-2011, Wallace is down to just 12.3 yards per reception in 2012.

It has been a quick fall from grace, but to understand the full disappointment behind his season, you have to go back to the offseason, which really foreshadowed these events.

They are the events that are building towards this being the end of Wallace’s time as a Steeler.

 

Overvalued and overruled

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Early in the offseason it was reported that Wallace, a restricted free agent, was looking for Larry Fitzgerald-type of money, which no team was going to be willing to pay him, especially not the Pittsburgh Steelers.

When the Steelers offered him a more reasonable deal, he rejected it, and that money instead went to teammate Antonio Brown, who had a breakout season last year. Brown signed a five-year extension worth $42.5M in July.

The next move was no surprise: Wallace held out of training camp. He even held out longer than expected, missing the entire camp and not reporting until late August. With a new offensive coordinator in town, some wondered how long Wallace would take to adjust to the changing offense.

If he had a great season again, then the Steelers would have options to retain him. It would also give Wallace some vindication in looking for that Vincent Jackson type of money instead of Brown’s offer as well.

But then the season started.

 

Wallace is not a true No. 1 receiver

Scratch that. If we can go back to the second half of 2011, Wallace’s production declined heavily after Brown emerged as a very good receiver himself. By year’s end, it appeared that Brown was the preferred target of Ben Roethlisberger.

In the offseason, we examined the catch radius for each receiver based on the type of catches they made in 2011. Brown was more impressive.

Wallace had the incredible three-year start to his career, and established himself as a great deep threat. But can he run all the other routes expected of No. 1 receiver as well? The big question heading into this season was which receiver, Wallace or Brown, would emerge as the true No. 1 in Pittsburgh.

Haley’s goal was to get the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands more quickly to limit the hits on him. Go figure, Roethlisberger suffered the most significant injury of his career, but that’s another topic.

The change was in the average pass length, which limits what Wallace does best. The offense was dominating on third down early in the season, and a big part of that was their success in the short-passing game.

Wallace started the season with a touchdown catch in four of the first five games. Though he did not put up the big yardage numbers he started with in 2011, he was still playing adequately.

It was a prime time game in Cincinnati in Week 7 when many football fans were able to see Wallace struggle with several bad drops (at least three), and even some of his catches were uncomfortable. This was a sign of things to come.

In his last eight games, Wallace has managed to catch only 38 of his 70 targets (54.3 percent) for 383 yards. It projects to a 16-game season of 76 catches for 766 yards and eight touchdowns.

Does that sound familiar?

In his last eight regular season games of 2011, Wallace only had 29 catches for 393 yards and three scores. He finished it off with a miserable playoff performance in Denver, catching three of 10 targets for just 26 yards, and dropping a 52-yard gain in the second quarter.

Wallace’s recent level of play is definitely not worth over $10M per season to the Steelers, or to any NFL offense.

 

Wallace makes (bad) excuses

Loss of focus?

Recently speaking out about his struggles this season, Wallace mentioned that he loses focus, and offers some other thoughts at NFL.com:

“I've never been a guy who dropped balls or just lose focus,” Wallace told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "The first three years, I was always involved, so you just warmed up in games and were just into it.

“But when you don't get the ball for two-and-half quarters, you lose focus. But that's the type of offense this is. We're spreading it around, so you're not going to get as many targets. When you get them, you have to make the best of them.”

Did he really just use lack of targets for losing focus? This season Wallace has 104 targets, which are only 10 fewer than the 114 he had in all of last season. The Steelers have attempted 483 passes so far this year, compared to 539 last year.

That means Wallace was targeted 21.2 percent of the time last season, and 21.5 percent this season.

It gets better.

Pittsburgh’s offense has played in 52 quarters of football this season. Wallace has been targeted at least once in 47 of those quarters.

Since becoming a starter in 2010, Wallace has never had his targets more evenly distributed among quarters than he has this season. His characterization of the offense could not be any more incorrect.

 

The factors Wallace can point to

So what has caused the decline for this promising, young talent?

Obviously it starts with himself. Dubbed a “one trick pony” for his speed, the variation in route running has just not materialized enough for Wallace, who is know in his fourth season in the league.

If he wants to blame someone besides himself, then he can look at Haley for not taking advantage of the strength that is the deep ball between Wallace and Roethlisberger. Why force a player into a role he is just not suited for? Haley has other receivers to do that with.

Wallace has just four catches on passes thrown beyond 20 yards this season, and all four went for touchdowns. Last season he had nine such catches, and the year before he had 14 of them.

Despite all the speed, Wallace has seven catches that gained 20-plus yards this season, regardless of pass length. That is well off from his usual quota of big plays.

Wallace has only four catches that have gained more than 22 yards this season, and they were actually all pretty big plays. The 82-yard touchdown bomb against Tennessee was great. The 51-yard touchdown on a short pass that showed off his world-class speed spearheaded a comeback win against the Giants. The 37-yard touchdown in the end zone on 3rd-and-16 helped beat the Jets. The 40-yard touchdown on Sunday against San Diego was good, but too little too late.

Maybe more alarming is that not even half of his catches produce a first down anymore. This comes after three straight seasons in which over 70 percent of his catches produced a first down.

Pro Football Focus has data on passes thrown 20 or more yards, and you can see the decline in Wallace’s numbers.

On second thought, Wallace’s percentage of deep targets (25.5 percent) is even higher than it was a year ago (21.2 percent). The big difference is the catch rate is not what it used to be, and he’s had some drops.

Against San Diego, Wallace had an opportunity for an 88-yard touchdown pass on a deep ball. He failed to make the catch, and the long incompletion actually forced the Steelers to use a timeout. San Diego led 3-0 at the time.

Source: NFL.com

Early last season, this would have been a sure touchdown for Wallace. The boos could not have been much louder for him after this one.

Though only credited with six dropped passes from various stat sites this season, Wallace tipped a pass in Cleveland in the fourth quarter that resulted in an interception. When the mistakes start to outweigh the positives, you have a bad situation.

Also, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Wallace has only made defenders miss one tackle on him (broken or avoided) this year. He caused 14 missed tackles in 2011. Wallace ranks just 58th on PFF’s WR rankings this season for players with a minimum of 50 percent of snaps played. That is 58 out of 66.

Finally, Wallace could argue that not having Roethlisberger has hurt him in recent weeks. Roethlisberger, of course, was injured early in the second half against the Chiefs, and then missed the next three games while Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch started.

Wallace was wide open in the end zone in Baltimore before halftime, but Batch just missed him.

While you get the boost from Roethlisberger, the offense is still missing that big-play threat.

 

Wallace in 2013

Joe Sargent/Getty Images

By design, Pittsburgh’s offense has decreased the vertical nature of their previous offensive strategy, and Wallace is just not a good enough route runner to consistently make the other plays you can get from Brown or even Emmanuel Sanders.

Sanders is a player that the Steelers could resign for much less money, and we know that the team has done an incredible job at identifying wide receiver talent in the middle rounds of the draft.

In other words, Wallace can definitely be replaced. At his current playing level, he would be very fortunate to get an offer of $42.5M over five years, like Brown did this past year.

A team like Indianapolis may take an interest with the connection to Bruce Arians, who is all about the vertical routes. However, his coaching future is up in the air with the Colts’ wild season, and they have an interesting collection of youth at that position right now.

There will be more suitors for Wallace after this season than there was when he was a restricted free agent, because he has lowered the price on himself through his quality of play.

While that also means that the Steelers could be more willing to negotiate a long-term deal again, they have to face the facts on Wallace’s limitations and what type of offense they want to run.

You do not want to hear a player using bad excuses for bad play, and the Steelers may just be ready to move on along with some other potential housecleaning moves (Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Colon, for example).

Pittsburgh signed Plaxico Burress back this year. Wallace can talk to him about how much the Steelers care if you’ve had past success or if the quarterback likes you. They did not bring Burress back in 2005, and only went on to win a Super Bowl that year.

This is not a decision the Steelers will sweat. And every dropped pass, penalty or mistake Wallace continues to have will just make it that much easier in the offseason.

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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