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Harris: Can Wallace adequately replace MVP Holmes?

| Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010

It's two seasons later, but the memory lingers like the stench of garbage soaked in cheap perfume.

Santonio Holmes, pigeon-toed with his cleats straddling millimeters inside the sideline, catches a bullet pass from Ben Roethlisberger for the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII.

Holmes, MVP of that game, was traded four months ago for conduct unbecoming a star player entering the final year of his contract.

Which brings us to one of the most important questions in the NFL this season.

Can Mike Wallace adequately replace Holmes as the Steelers' new split end?

It's a more important question than whether the New York Jets made a mistake signing LaDainian Tomlinson. More important than why the Washington Redskins paid Albert Haynesworth $100 million. Even more important than whether Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens can coexist peacefully in Cincinnati.

Holmes was a jumble of contradictions who made clutch third-down receptions, took punt returns back to the house and blocked like a fullback in the running game. On the other hand, besides his off-field issues, Holmes had an ego and he believed he was underutilized in the passing game.

"He was one of the premiere dudes in this league," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said Monday. "He was outstanding."

Arians had this to say about Wallace, who admired Holmes as a teammate but not enough not to want to take his job: "That's the beauty of the Steelers. When an opportunity comes, somebody's always stepped up. Guys fill the role as good or better."

There's probably more pressure on Wallace than any offensive player on the roster, even more than the quarterback who will replace Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season.

Holmes' ability to attract double-teams resulted in Hines Ward and Wallace facing single coverage last season: Ward's 95 receptions were his highest total since 2003; Wallace led all NFL receivers with 19.4 yards per catch.

With defenses intent on stopping the pass, Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 1,108 yards on a hefty 4.6 yards per carry.

Wallace isn't concerned about replacing Holmes; he's wondering what took him so long to receive the opportunity.

Like most NFL receivers, Wallace is supremely confident in his ability to get open on every play, something he learned from being around Holmes and Ward as a rookie in 2009.

"I want the guys to trust me, to believe they have a good guy out there who's not a drop-off from Santonio," said Wallace, whose focus on football has heightened since the birth of his daughter, Maliha, on Friday. "I have some big shoes to fill -- he's a great player, that's my guy. We talk all the time. (But) I plan on doing an even better job than he did.

"Not just the third guy, (or) the deep guy, but a guy they can depend on any down. I look forward to going against the No. 1 (cornerback). They're going to try to press me and see if I can get off the jam. I'm stronger (this season). I'm going to be ready for them."

Wallace plans to elevate his game beyond the cartoon caricature of him being roadrunner fast and little else. He wants to be taken seriously as a complete football player who can work free against any type of coverage and takes pride in his blocking skills.

"It's just the mentality. You have to want to block. As the year went on, I was getting a lot of knockdowns, crackbacks," Wallace said. "Both of those guys (Ward and Holmes) were Super Bowl MVPs and they're out there throwing their head in there. If they can get in there, I can get in there."

To be sure, Wallace also wants to be respected for clutch moments like his 19-yard touchdown grab from Roethlisberger against Green Bay on the final play of the game. Wallace rounded off his route under duress in the end zone and made a difficult catch before tumbling out of bounds in the Steelers' 37-36 victory at Heinz Field.

Ward and Holmes couldn't have done it better.

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