Stars align for Wallace and Holmes

When Santonio Holmes, right, was traded to New York, fellow receiver Mike Wallace took on a bigger role in Pittsburgh's offense. US Presswire

PITTSBURGH -- Steelers receiver Mike Wallace was sitting in his apartment in Pittsburgh when he first heard the news.

He was dumbfounded when teammate Keenan Lewis told him that friend and fellow receiver Santonio Holmes had been traded to the New York Jets.

"It was during offseason workouts," Wallace told ESPN.com's AFC North blog. "Keenan said, 'We traded Tone,' and I was like, 'Nah.' So I turned on the TV, and as soon as I did, it was flashing all across the screen. At first I was [shocked]. I didn't want to see him go, because that's my good friend."

Nine months later, Holmes and the Jets return to Heinz Field -- for the second time this season -- to face Wallace and the Steelers in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. The winner will advance to Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas.

Rarely does a trade work out so perfectly for both parties.

Holmes had various off-field issues and was facing a four-game suspension this season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. The Steelers were tired of the problems. But instead of releasing Holmes, Pittsburgh found a willing trade partner in New York, which in turn got the receiver at a bargain (a fifth-round pick). Holmes is now New York's most clutch playmaker and caught another huge touchdown last week against the New England Patriots, which helped get the Jets to the AFC title game.

For Pittsburgh, the trade provided an opportunity for Wallace to be a first-time starter. The second-year pro racked up more yards (1,257) and touchdowns (10) this season than Holmes ever did in a Steelers uniform. With Holmes gone, Wallace has quickly developed into one of the NFL's fastest-rising stars and is a big reason Pittsburgh is knocking at the door of its second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons.

"We're both where we want to be," Wallace said. "I think everything worked out for the both of us just fine. He's doing well where he is, and I'm doing well over here."

Thirteen-year veteran and future Hall of Famer Hines Ward has helped develop many receivers in Pittsburgh. One of the NFL's smartest players, Ward tutored Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El and both Holmes and Wallace while with the Steelers over the past dozen years.

Both of Ward's prized pupils will be on the field Sunday but playing for opposite teams.

"I'm so proud of him to go out there and do the things he's done," Ward said of Holmes this week. "But he wants to win just as bad as we want to win."

Wallace came to Pittsburgh as a raw talent. Despite blazing straight-line speed, he fell to the third round because his game wasn't polished coming out of Ole Miss. But Wallace had great teachers starting ahead of him, and he proved to be a willing student and a good listener.

Like big brothers, Ward and Holmes were constantly on Wallace to learn how to run better routes. If Wallace did something wrong in practice, it didn't take long for one of the two former Super Bowl MVPs to chew Wallace out to make sure he got it right by game time. Ward treated Holmes the same way when he entered the league in 2006.

Today Wallace credits Ward and Holmes for his rapid development.

"That was the main thing that he taught me was route running," Wallace said of Holmes. "And I'm always trying to steal some tips from somebody."

During Wallace's rookie year, Pittsburgh primarily made him go deep as the third receiver, while Ward and Holmes ran more complicated route combinations. But being a starter meant Wallace would have to fill Holmes' role in the offense.

Wallace remains Pittsburgh's deep threat, averaging an astounding 21 yards per catch. But his career-high 60 receptions showed that he also can make more intermediate plays underneath.

Holmes thrives in the short and intermediate areas. Despite playing just 12 games, Holmes (52 receptions) was just one reception shy of leading the Jets and averaged 14.6 yards per catch in the regular season.

The two communicate regularly, mostly via text. But Wallace says all of that stopped this week.

"We're always going to be cool, but it's all business," Wallace said of Holmes. "There's no need to talk to him right now, just like he doesn't want to talk to me right now until after the business is done."