Steelers young receiving trio experiences growing pains
Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are the Steelers' money receivers, the high-production players who were supposed to make Todd Haley's first year on the job an easy one.
The receiving group offered the most potential of any since the John Stallworth/Lynn Swann days.
Toss in Heath Miller and the occasional throw to possession receiver Jerricho Cotchery, and just watch the yardage, points and wins add up.
Except that the Steelers 2012 offense hasn't been much like Steelers '79 at all.
Wallace showed up late after skipping training camp. Brown missed three games to injury, Ben Roethlisberger missed 3½. Sanders is hurting now with a fractured rib.
And while the Steelers' passing game gets a passing grade, the offense — 14 games into a much-disrupted season — continues to develop an identity, a rhythm, a consistency.
It might want to hurry up, especially with the Steelers (7-7) facing a potential playoff elimination game against the Bengals (8-6) on Sunday at Heinz Field.
“I think we're going into the direction we need to for these last two games. We don't have a choice,” said Wallace, a potential free agent who might be playing his final two regular-season games in Pittsburgh.
“We can't lose another game. I think everybody knows that, and everybody's mind frame is focused on that.”
All offenses take time to learn, and Haley's is no different.
“When you're working on chemistry but guys are out, it's hard to grow,” Cotchery said Thursday.
“We've got a young group — Antonio and Emmanuel are in their third years — and there's still a lot of growth there. The same with Mike. It's a process with quarterbacks and wide receivers, understanding what you need to do to get open, all those things.”
The group's statistics are comparable to a year ago but not superior.
After 14 games in 2011, Wallace had 67 catches for 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns. He has 63 for 823 yards and eight TDs.
Brown has 59 catches for 668 yards and three TDs compared to 60 for 984 and two TDs a year ago.
Sanders has 41 receptions for 585 yards and a TD compared to 21 for 274 and two TDs.
Miller has taken the biggest jump, from 48 catches for 590 yards and two touchdowns to 68 for 771 yards and eight TDs.
The numbers illustrate the lessened emphasis on the deep pass and the structural overhaul of the offense: of Roethlisberger's 398 passes, only 131 traveled 10 yards or more. A year ago, he'd already thrown 171 such passes. And he has only 10 completions of 20 yards or more. He had 24 all last season.
But one statistic is not comparable: the Steelers have seven wins compared to 10 in 2011. And as Haley said: “That's what we're measured on: How many wins do you have? Are you in the playoffs?”
“I feel like we're doing pretty well with a lot of injuries. We have a lot of moving parts,” Roethlisberger said.
Brown and Cotchery said they believe the passing game started clicking as Roethlisberger threw for three scores during the second half of the 34-24 upset loss to the Chargers on Dec. 9.
He was sharp again in Dallas, throwing for 339 yards as Brown caught eight passes, Miller caught seven, and Wallace had four catches for 95 yards — even if he didn't necessarily like some of the play-calling.
“We did a lot of great things, we definitely moved in the right direction, and we need to take advantage of the situations we get this week,” Brown said.
If only because a loss this week means next week won't matter.
“Hopefully, these aren't my last two weeks. Hopefully we have a lot more weeks left,” Wallace said.
“We've got so much going on right now, I don't have time to think about it (possibly leaving). I'm thinking about what's ahead of us.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.