For a second, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense looked like it was going to fall apart.
Star wide receiver Mike Wallace bolted for the Miami Dolphins early in the offseason, and he wouldn't have even been the team's biggest loss. That would have been Emmanuel Sanders, who signed a $2.5 million offer sheet with the New England Patriots, only to have it matched by the Steelers, via USA Today.
Sanders is now being counted on to replace Wallace's statistical output, which had been at least 756 yards in each of the last four seasons. In comparison, Sanders has never topped 626 yards, a career-high he established last year. But the bigger issue is that the two players are not of the same style.
Whereas Wallace was a true downfield threat that stretched the field vertically, Sanders is more of a horizontally-based threat that excels at finding the soft spots in zones and running away from man coverage.
Despite the differences in talent, Sanders' style makes him a better long-term fit for the Steelers' offense.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley's offense features a short passing game that's designed to get the ball to his receivers quickly and in the open field. Although the passing game is different, not everyone has been a fan of it, notably quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, via NFL.com:
Haley's offense is not a big-play offense. It's kind of a dink-and-dunk offense. There's a guy calling the plays. That's [lack of explosiveness] on him. Sometimes, we'll call something long, and it's just not there. For us, the big thing is that when we get into the red zone, we don't get complicated. We need to finish drives.
Haley also uses multiple formations to put his receivers in position to make plays with the ball. Examples of formations include stacked and bunched players from twins (two to a side) and trips (three to a side) sets, all of which create uninterrupted releases off the line of scrimmage.
It's something that the Steelers offense has used very well since the early days of Bruce Arians' five-year stint from 2007 to 2011 as the offensive coordinator.
Where Arians' offense differed from Haley's current offense, however, is he used an extended dropback game that was built around the vertical prowess of the aforementioned Mike Wallace.
With Wallace (and Arians) gone, the Steelers offense has reverted to a short dropback passing game that fits Sanders and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who praised Sanders when he officially re-signed with the team, via WDVE:
He’s a lot better than people give him credit for being. He’s really smart. It’s good for the team. He’s a good teammate. He can really help. If he stays healthy I think he can do some great things.
What makes Sanders better than he's given credit for is not just his intelligence, but his short-area quickness.
He posted some of the best 20-yard and 3-cone drill times coming out of Southern Methodist in 2010, recording times of 4.1 and 6.6 seconds, according to NFL Draft Scout. Those times enable him to separate from defensive backs and run the full route tree, which isn't what Wallace was able to do.
He's shown the ability to showcase those attributes on multiple occasions, including a 31-yard reception this past season against the Kansas City Chiefs.
It was the third quarter of a tied game, and the Steelers were backed up at their own 15-yard line.
The Steelers were facing a 3rd-and-9 and Roethlisberger was in shotgun set. To his right were three pass-catchers lined up in a trips bunch set, one of which was Sanders.
Sanders was the No. 3 receiver from the sideline in, lined up off the line of scrimmage and instructed to beat then-Chiefs nickel cornerback Javier Arenas. His route would be a delayed shallow cross that worked across the face of formation and through the middle of the field.
At the snap, Sanders hopped to his right and awaited tight Heath Miller to release into his route. The delay was designed this way for three reasons: Miller's route cleared out room for Sanders' route, it gave Sanders a free release and it froze Arenas.
Following the wait, he stemmed five yards with his shoulders square to not tip off his route, and then cut to the middle of the field off his right foot.
The inside cut created separation from Arenas and allowed Sanders to speed through the vacant seam.
As he crossed the far hash, Sanders created further separation, hauled in the throw from Roethlisberger and picked up 31 yards before being tackled past the Steelers' 45-yard line.
It's shallow crosses like these that Sanders excels at and Haley will use more of in the upcoming season.
Haley's offense will look to get the 26-year-old receiver in space, which he can do very well because of his very good lateral quickness and route-running skills. It's precisely why he's an excellent long-term fit for the Steelers offense.
Now all Pittsburgh has to do is lock Sanders up to a long-term deal.