When the Pittsburgh Steelers traded Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets this past offseason, the biggest question for the offense was who would replace him as the its big-play threat in the passing game. Holmes, for all of his problems off of the field (two suspensions: one by the team in 2008, one by the NFL in 2010, a now infamous and probably forgotten Twitter meltdown) was an impact player on it. A Super Bowl MVP and an explosive wide receiver capable of turning any pass into a touchdown.
The answer for his replacement was an easy one, coming in the form of second-year wide receiver Mike Wallace. Fresh off a rookie campaign that saw him finish with the highest yards-per-catch average in the NFL, he's emerged as not only the Steelers biggest impact player on offense, but also the best big play wide receiver in the NFL.
As a rookie in the Steelers offense in 2009, many of Wallace's catches came as the result of him using his freakish speed and simply out-running defensive backs down the field and hauling in bombs from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. That is very different from the type of player that Holmes was for the Steelers. Holmes excelled at turning the 10-yard pass into a 60-yard gain. He was at his best after he already had the football in his hands and was making people miss. Wallace simply managed to run past everybody and pick up all 60 yards at once.
Over the course of his sophomore season, Wallace's game has started to round into shape. He's no longer the guy that simply runs "9 routes" down the sidelines every play (though, he still does that) and gets behind the secondary. He's also starting to improve his route running and become more of a factor on the short and intermediate routes and turning short passes into big gains.
During the Steelers' Week 16 win against Carolina, for example, he took advantage of a Carolina blitz, hauled in a hot route, and sprinted through the entire Panthers secondary for a 43-yard touchdown.
Head coach Mike Tomlin, who has at times this season called Wallace a "one trick pony," referring to his ability to burn secondaries down field, was asked at his weekly press conference on Tuesday what improvements Wallace still needed to make to become a more complete receiver. Tomlin pointed to attention to detail in route running and reading coverages. When asked if the touchdown against Carolina was what he had in mind, Tomlin simply smiled and said he liked what he saw on that play. Tomlin is big on talking about how there's always room for improvement, even in victory, so it's not a surprise that he'd like to see even more from his still raw -- and extremely talented -- second-year receiver.
So far this season Wallace has scored on plays of 41, 46, 29, 53, 39, 33, 52 and 43, and has two additional plays of 50 yards or more. No player on the NFL has more catches of 20-or-more yards entering Week 17 (24), and only DeSean Jackson of the Eagles averages more yards per catch. He's currently sixth in the NFL in receiving yards, despite only being targeted on 95 passes (catching 57), which ranks 40th in the NFL. Basically: even though he's not targeted as often as some other receivers, when the ball is thrown in Wallace's direction, big plays tend to happen.
The advanced statistical metrics at Football Outsiders rank Wallace as the No. 1 receiver in the NFL in 2010 both in terms of total value and value per play. He's also managed to catch 61 percent of the balls thrown his direction, which is an impressive accomplishment when you consider how many of his passes are deep down field and lower percentage plays.
The FO metrics aren't perfect, nor are they the end-all, be-all, but they're no more flawed than simply looking at total receptions or total yards without any context. A receiver that plays on a dreadful team that is constantly playing from behind and forced to throw the football in an effort to play catch up is going to make a lot of catches (Santana Moss and his 84 catches for the Redskins come to mind as an example of this). But hauling in a bunch of passes when your team is fighting a lost cause down by 20 points in the fourth quarter isn't as valuable as making big plays to put your team in a position to win. The Steelers rarely play from behind and have run the ball over 440 times this season, which doesn't give a receiver like Wallace as many opportunities to rack up huge reception numbers. But that doesn't take away from his overall value to the offense.
For as good as Holmes was for the Steelers (and still is for the Jets), Pittsburgh hasn't missed him due to the meteoric rise of Wallace, as well as the late-season development of rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.