The NFL offseason is one of the most interesting aspects of the league year, with many saying it’s better than the regular season itself. While I don’t necessarily agree with that, it is tough to say that the offseason isn’t interesting, because it almost always has at least one intriguing free-agent story line.
This year’s early candidate for that story line is Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace. Wallace is a restricted free agent and is expected to be tagged with a first-round tender instead of a franchise tag due to the significant cost of the franchise tag and the team’s cap situation (Pittsburgh is $10 million over the cap). That cap crunch means they risk losing Wallace, which would create a significant hole in the offense.
While Wallace isn’t an elite receiver by any stretch, he adds a dimension that only he can bring to an offense: speed. Wallace’s speed is the strength of his game and is an integral part of the Steelers offense.
Regardless of the type of pass offense that a team decides to run, it’s vital that they have an athlete that can push the top of the defense and potentially blow the lid off by vertically stretching the secondary. If an offense doesn’t possess that speed element, it will have issues with passing the ball effectively against top-notch defenses because the defenders will sit on the routes and won’t respect the deep ball, thus flooding the underneath zones and forcing an offense to work for every yard.
Wallace changes the dynamics of an offense with his speed, and an example of this came during Pittsburgh’s Week 3 game against the Colts.
In the first quarter, Wallace burned the Indy defense for 81 yards by knifing through the seam after motioning inside. It all started when the Steelers came out in their 12 (1 back, 2 tight end) personnel grouping with Wallace on the weak side of the formation.
He initially lined up wide and then motioned to a stacked Twin set that the Steelers frequently use to create a clean release at the line of scrimmage for him, as can be seen below. At the snap of the ball, receiver Hines Ward, who aligned in front of Wallace, took on the jam and Wallace released without any issues.
Once Wallace left the line of scrimmage, he looked to tear through the Colts Tampa 2 coverage with a Bend route (yellow line) that targeted the “pipe” or “seam” against middle linebacker Pat Angerer, while the other routes ran by his teammates occupied the rest of the defenders.
The Bend route that Wallace was assigned on this play is one that he consistently does a good job of running. He also excels at a few other routes, like the Post and Go (or “Fly”) routes.
However, while he runs these routes effectively, he doesn’t do the same on multiple other routes, such as Comeback routes, which is what I would consider his main weakness. He occasionally runs them well, but not with enough consistency to separate from defensive backs, even with his elite speed.
Mastering quality route running can be a long process, especially if you are expected to read a defense’s coverage and a defender’s leverage in the process, and it’s something that Wallace is still working on.
The issue that arises in his route running is his short area quickness when he is looking to sink his hips in order to break off a route and create separation. At times, he takes too many steps to break off his route, a process that ideally takes between two and three steps. That negates his short-area quickness advantage and creates less separation to get open.
This may seem like a minor issue, but it isn’t, as it can be a bigger problem when he’s asked to run sharp routes on timing pass patterns, which are often used by the New England Patriots — a team that could be interested in the Pittsburgh speedster.
Despite this issue, Wallace could potentially become a significant target for a few teams that can afford to pay him and give up a top draft choice in the process. He has the ability to blow the lid off of defenses with his speed, and he’s still young (he’ll be 26 when the season starts) so he has plenty of time to develop. Those are all factors to heavily consider if you’re the GM of a team in dire need of a vertical threat.