During the remainder of the season, Steelers fans will remember their team's Week 10 massacre at the hands of the New England Patriots for a number of unfortunate reasons. They'll remember that the injury-riddled offensive line was completely exposed, as the opposition registered four sacks - often with a three-man rush - and generally harassed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger all night long. They'll remember how their pass rush couldn't lay a hand on Tom Brady, who had enough time in the pocket to file his taxes. Or maybe they'll remember the game the straw that broke the camel's back for longtime kicker Jeff Reed, who missed a 26-yard field goal, his seventh of the season, precipitating his release this Tuesday.
It's difficult to find a silver lining amidst all the Steelers wreckage of Sunday night, especially in an absolute beat-down of a loss to a much-hated AFC rival who has terrorized Pittsburgh over the last decade. (Tom Brady is 6-1 against the Steelers in his career; I got a text late Sunday night from a Patriots fan friend that read, "The Rooney family doesn't own the Steelers - Brady does." Yeah, that stings.)
Nonetheless, my hope is that Pittsburgh fans will grow to remember last Sunday night as the moment the likely Canton-bound Hines Ward officially passed the torch to second-year wideout Mike Wallace, whose grasp on that torch was as firm and sure-handed as any of his catches that evening.
In an ugly, ugly loss, Wallace was simply terrific. Roethlisberger targeted him a team-high 11 times, and Wallace caught eight of them (72.7%) for 136 yards and two scores. All told, Roethlisberger had a nearly perfect quarterback rating (153.8) when targeting Wallace on Sunday night.
What's more, Wallace didn't do it all on deep routes, as has been his M.O. in the past. No, he did it all. Wallace displayed improved route-running, converting for first downs on hitches and outs (he's got a nasty quick slant, too) and running for yards after the catch, rather than hauling in bombs over his shoulder. On his 33-yard touchdown grab (video) late in the game, Wallace was able to keep the play alive for his quarterback and find the hole in stingy zone coverage. Make no mistake, Wallace's fundamentals are sound.
For the sake of argument, even if Wallace, who Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather thinks is the fastest player in the league, was a one-trick pony, as many analysts have claimed, you'd have to admit that it's a hell of a trick. Despite leading the league his rookie year with 19.4 ypc, Wallace is still burning opposing defensive backs this season, maintaining the trend with an absolutely preposterous 21.4 ypc. Defenses know Wallace is going deep, but they still can't stop him. That is a truly special athlete, a young receiver with immense upside.
Despite Wallace's comparatively modest draft pedigree (selected 84th overall in 2009), he stacks up favorably with Super Bowl hero and recent first-round castaway Santonio Holmes - the man many were afraid Wallace couldn't possibly replace - through his first 25 career games:
What's more, Wallace's production through 2010's first four games (52.8 ypg) was stifled by Roethlisberger's suspension, so without the quarterback's offseason misbehavior, we're likely looking at an even more favorable comparison here, one where Wallace surpasses Holmes in yardage. The bottom line is that there's no reason Wallace can't become a (much?) better receiver than Holmes. That's something to get excited about.
Of course, Wallace's increased opportunities during Sunday's contest - and potentially going forward - were in part due to the absence of Ward, the long-time stalwart in Pittsburgh's receiving corps. Ward was concussed late in the first quarter of the team's loss to the Patriots, ending his streak of 186 consecutive games with a reception, the third longest ever of its kind. Despite his adamant desire to play in this week's forthcoming tilt with the Oakland Raiders, it's likely the Steelers give the veteran another week to recover, given the substantial health risks.
Now, it would be foolish, nay, sacrilegious for me to say that this perceived passing of the torch means Ward is done - or some such nonsense. True, his production has fallen off quite a bit this year (under 50 ypg, even if you omit Sunday night), but we're dealing with an extremely useful player who can still dominate a game from time to time. (See Week 1 and Week 7.) Ward's presence was particularly missed in the red zone on Sunday night, when apparent miscommunications between Roethlisberger and his less experienced receivers resulted in field goal attempts, not touchdowns.
Regardless of Ward's injury and the humiliating loss on Sunday Night Football, one thing is clear: Mike Wallace is going to be a star.