When wide receiver Mike Wallace ended his offseason holdout and reported to the Steelers 12 days before the season opener, he returned to a new offense, a new role and a new challenge.
He was no longer the wide receiver whom coach Mike Tomlin had described as a "one-trick pony" whose game relied on beating defenders on deep routes. In Todd Haley's new offense, which focuses on safer and shorter routes, Wallace has had to adjust in order to retain a big role. It was a change based on survival -- and not necessarily by choice.
The Steelers might have lost at the New York Giants if not for the new Wallace. Pittsburgh trailed by 10 points early in last Sunday's fourth quarter when Wallace made a key adjustment in what has been a year filled with them. The Giants, who had blitzed only three times in the first three quarters, decided to send six defenders on third-and-5. Wallace and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger both identified the blitz and changed the route to a quick slant at the line of scrimmage.
Catching the ball five yards downfield, Wallace broke across the field and kicked into a gear that not many players have. His speed allowed him to outrun four Giants players even though they took the right angle to get to him. That 51-yard touchdown was the turning point in the win and may become the turning point in Wallace's season.
"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 in New York. “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.”
Wallace's inability to alter his game last season, when defenses played Cover 2 against him, was one of the reasons he faded at the end of 2011. To his credit, he remains the Steelers' leading receiver in this new style of offense.
He's on pace to set career marks in receptions and touchdowns, and he's close to matching his yards from last season. The only drop-off in Wallace's game has been his yards-per-catch average, which has fallen from a career mark of 18.7 yards to 13.5 yards this season. He has had some problems dropping passes this season as well.
Defenses, though, continue to fear Wallace. His nine touchdowns of 50-plus yards is the third most in the NFL since 2009. Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (ankle) is not expected to play Monday night against visiting Kansas City, so the Chiefs' priority on pass defense will be containing Wallace and his speed.
"He's a blur," Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel said. "That's how fast he is. He's really fast and makes it difficult to defend him because he has that kind of speed."
Crennel added, "You've got to stay back, or either he runs past you, and when you stay back, then he stops and hooks it up in front of you and then it's a catch-and-run. You're kind of between a rock and a hard place when you're trying to defend that kind of speed."