by Alan Robinson
Associated Press Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP)—Mike Wallace is on the fast track to replacing Santonio Holmes as the Steelers’ primary deep passing threat. Byron Leftwich needed only one practice to realize that.
During a 7-on-7 passing drill recently in a voluntary practice, Wallace beat his man cleanly, but Leftwich’s pass landed behind the receiver. The timing and precision needed to correctly execute the fly pattern weren’t there.
|STEPPING IN—Mike Wallace eludes Paul Pusluszny during a preseason game against Buffalo last August at Heinz Field.
Clearly, it’s going to take the Steelers some time to adjust to having a receiver other than Holmes lining up with Hines Ward in a tandem that, for one season, paired two Super Bowl MVPs.
Or maybe it won’t.
Wallace is convinced the transition will take less time than expected, given he’s replacing a former first-round draft pick who caught 79 passes last season and had a combined 18 touchdown receptions the last three seasons.
“I feel like they believe I can do the same things Santonio did,” Wallace said. “I don’t feel like there’s anything Santonio did that I can’t do. I’m still running some of the routes I ran last year, it’s just that I have more of them to run.”
Maybe Wallace doesn’t have Holmes’ knowledge of NFL cornerbacks, or of opponents’ defensive tendencies. And he’s still not certain how running plays out of Holmes’ position will differ from running them out of Ward’s position; he spent last season as Ward’s backup.
Leftwich does know this: Few defenders will be faster than Wallace.
“We all know what Santonio can do,” said Leftwich, who is running the first-team offense during Ben Roethlisberger’s absence. “Mike, he’s running by a lot of people. He’s got speed that not a lot of people have. We haven’t seen that in the league a lot. There’s only a few people who can run like that.”
Holmes is fast, but he’s not as fast as Wallace, who caught 39 passes for 756 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 19.4 yards per catch as a rookie. His speed was such an asset, the Steelers felt confident they didn’t need to look elsewhere for a replacement last month when they decided to trade Holmes to the Jets following a series of off-field missteps.
After compensating for Wallace’s speed, Leftwich managed to hit the former Mississippi receiver on the same deep pass play that didn’t work the first time.
“When you think of Mike, you think of a deep threat,” quarterback Dennis Dixon said. “Whenever you go up top with Mike, you’ve got to be sure to release it early because he can outrun your arm.”
To Ward, the biggest adjustment for Wallace won’t be in lining up at a different position, but learning how to get open while running precise patterns on first and second downs.
Last season, Wallace—a third-round draft pick—mostly played in multiple receiver packages in which he rarely opposed top-line cornerbacks or was double-teamed.
“Sometimes the (top) guys lined up on me, but for the most part they were on Santonio or Hines,” Wallace said. “But I’m always ready for a challenge. I don’t feel like I’m afraid of anybody, I don’t fear anybody and they go to work just like I go to work. I’m going to be ready for them, just like they’re going to be ready for me.”
Wallace also benefited from the instruction time Ward and Holmes gave him.
“I learned how to be a pro, coming in every day and working and never being satisfied with a good game or having one good week,” Wallace said. “If you’re hanging onto that, you’re going to get whipped. Every day’s a new day, that’s the main thing.”
Every season’s a new one, too, and this could be an especially demanding one for the Steelers because Roethlisberger will be suspended until October.
“We know what type of business we’re in and we’re ready to roll with whoever’s in,” Wallace said. “It’s always going to be hard when he’s not here, but we’ve got to keep rolling. I feel like when he comes back, we’re going to pick up where we left off.”
Wallace also hopes to pick up where Holmes left off, averaging seven catches per game during the second half of last season.
“That’s the nature of the business,” Wallace said. “One guy’s out and the next day I have to step in.”