Kovacevic: Call Sanders the 'X' factor
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Mike Wallace is mostly an afterthought in the Steelers' collective mindset, having taken his afterburners to South Beach many months ago. But rest assured his special page in the Todd Haley Rosetta Stone Playbook — the one with an “X” marking the wide receiver, and a long, straight, upward arrow attached — is still in there.
Same simple terminology, too, which should please the quarterback.
“Still called ‘Go,' ” Emmanuel Sanders was saying before the team's first practice Saturday at St. Vincent. “And the guy doing ‘Go' is still called ‘X.' ”
Just one difference …
“I'm ‘X' now.”
He sure is. And what an “X” factor that could be this fall, one way or the other.
See, the coaches quietly have been grooming Sanders all spring and summer to shift from his natural slot position to the left outside flank. That began in earnest with deep balls in offseason training activities. It continued here, where the new wide receivers coach, Richard Mann, informed Sanders upon arrival into camp that the role will be his. And it even found some tangible form late on this Saturday afternoon, when Sanders dusted Willie Gay down the left side to haul in a 35-yard Ben Roethlisberger pass.
Is a change this significant fair to a fourth-year guy who doesn't have Wallace's speed — few mortals do — and who's made his living on the bump-and-run world of the inside?
Probably not, but it doesn't seem to matter to Sanders. Judging by how he beams at the mere mention of “X,” he's either channeling his inner Donald Sutherland secret agent from “JFK,” or he's blissfully oblivious to the importance of being “X” in a Roethlisberger-led offense or he's exactly that confident he can handle it.
To hear him, sounds like the latter.
“Of course,” Sanders said. “I feel like, because I've been playing in the slot, people don't really know my speed. Now, I'm going to the outside, and I plan to showcase it. I'm excited to be the deep guy. I've been working on it this whole offseason, and I'm ready.”
To be like Mike?
“To make big plays.”
If only the Steelers could be sure.
Because, really, if you can think of any single strategic variable more critical to the offense than whether the franchise quarterback can do what he likes best — rear back and let 'er rip — I'm game to hear it.
That's not to overestimate the literal impact. Throws that travel 20-plus yards in the air won't define anyone's offense, pass-happy era or not. Even in 2011, when Roethlisberger aired it out for 4,077 yards, only 68 throws traveled 20-plus yards. That's just a handful per game, and the net result was a mixed bag of six touchdowns, five picks and two drops.
It was even less of a factor last year, partly because Wallace was pouty and unproductive, partly because Haley scripted plays closer to the line: Roethlisberger made 47 throws of 20-plus yards and completed just 11 for another mixed bag of five touchdowns, four picks and four drops.
So, why fuss over Wallace's departure at all, much less consider it critical to replace what he did?
Simple: He stretched the field, maybe better than anyone in the NFL.
His deep routes dragged one defensive back, usually two, with him and opened underneath routes for Sanders, Antonio Brown and Heath Miller. All concerned would emphatically praise Wallace for that, even when — no, especially when — he'd manage no more than a couple of catches.
He wasn't a decoy. He was a bona fide threat.
Just ask the guy with the best view.
“You can't go get another Mike Wallace,” Roethlisberger said Saturday. “It just doesn't happen like that.”
In the same breath, though, he expressed unfettered confidence in all of his receivers — including Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress and third-round pick Markus Wheaton — with no complaint that management didn't do more to replace Wallace.
“The guys we have here, I think, are more than capable of doing their job. Antonio, Emmanuel, J-Co, Plax, and we'll see what Wheaton can do … those guys will be just fine. They don't need to go out and be Mike Wallace. They just need to go and be themselves, and we'll be fine.”
Color me skeptical, albeit open-minded. It's certainly cause for optimism that Sanders made six catches on throws traveling 20-plus yards. That was the same number Wallace had, even though Wallace was targeted 31 times with such throws to Sanders' 15. But it's also cause for concern that Sanders has never had an NFL catch of more than 37 yards and that he found the end zone once last season, regardless of the length of throw.
The most realistic scenario, I'd bet, is one where Sanders does his Wallace thing on occasion to keep defenses honest, but Brown will have big plays of his own as a balance. Some can be deep balls — Brown had his own long-distance gem Saturday — but mostly they'd be in the mold of those when he was team MVP two years ago. You know, find him open space on the floor and let him dance.
If that plays out, maybe it'll eventually explain this talk I had with Brown before practice:
Me: So, can you make up for some of those Wallace big plays?
Brown, smiling: “We'll see.”
Me: What's that mean?
Brown, smiling wider: “We'll see.”
Doesn't come across as someone being left off the playbook's fun page.
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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