FOXBORO, Mass. — Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace is far from a complete wide receiver, but he might be the most dangerous deep threat in the NFL right now.
Wallace does one thing great, and he's continued to get better at his trade over the last year. He's recognizing how to beat deep coverages by outsmarting them with more complex routes, and he takes advantage of defensive backs when they're off-balance or flat-footed.
Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty said Wallace is "probably the fastest" wide receiver they'll play all season. To make up for that speed, the defense needs to be flawless with its technique and communication, both of which have doomed Steelers opponents this season.
"They have their plays where they know they're going to let him go, take a shot and see if they can hit him," Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "Anytime you have a guy with that much speed, you've got to let him loose and let him run. They're going to do that, and we've got to make sure we contain him."
Ninkovich won't square off with Wallace, but he has been effective at clogging up receivers at the line of scrimmage. That will likely come into play Sunday in Pittsburgh.
From there, it's on the cornerbacks and safeties to stay on target and keep a healthy appreciation for Wallace's speed. One slip-up will almost certainly lead to a touchdown.
Wallace is tied for 11th in the NFL with 36 receptions, third with 730 receiving yards, tied for third with five touchdowns and tied for third with 11 receptions of at least 20 yards (nearly one-third of his catches). Wallace's last four touchdowns — all in the last five weeks — have traversed at least 28 yards.
For sure, Wallace's speed and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's big arm got it done, but the opposing defenses deserved plenty of fault for lapses on the play. Let's take a look.
Wallace beat a lackadaisical Colts defense for an 81-yard touchdown on a deep post route against a cover-2 in Week 3. The safety on Wallace's side of the field nonchalantly backpedaled 15 yards ahead of Wallace, who broke toward the middle of the field, easily outran the middle linebacker and blew past the front-side safety who didn't have enough awareness to key on the middle of the zone. It was extremely poor defensive execution from communication to performance.
Wallace took advantage of the Titans' defense for a 40-yard touchdown in Week 5, when Tennessee geared up to stop the run in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger used a play-action fake — which froze the single deep safety, who kept his eyes on the offensive backfield until Roethlisberger pulled the ball — and Wallace ran past the cornerback in man coverage. The corner had poor footwork, and Wallace exploded past him down the right sideline. The cornerback was counting on help from the safety, but he should have given Wallace more cushion due to the play-action, which the corner should have known would freeze the safety in that situation.
Wallace scored a 28-yard touchdown in Week 6 against the Jaguars, who were again victimized by poor coverage and a good play from Roethlisberger. The left cornerback didn't touch Wallace before curling into a short zone, and Wallace was the responsibility of the two safeties. Wallace ran a post, and the front-side safety was responsible for his entire half of the field, so he had to stay in soft coverage. As Wallace broke, Roethlisberger used a pump fake to freeze the backside safety, who left the front-side safety in an impossible position. It was too easy — a strange defensive play call and poor communication.
Wallace used a great double move to set up his 95-yard touchdown last week against the Cardinals. He was lined up in single coverage, with the only deep safety lined up on the opposite side of the field, and Wallace showed a fade route, causing the cornerback to shift his weight and square up to Roethlisberger. As soon as the corner committed to the fade, Wallace broke inside to shift the corner's weight again, and then Roethlisberger easily hit Wallace in full stride. This was Wallace's best performance on any of the four touchdowns.
Wallace has never been tremendously effective on short routes, but he's incredibly dangerous in the deep game. Therefore, it's of utmost importance for the Patriots to stay on point with their assignments because Wallace can score from anywhere on the field.
"You've just got to be prepared to know where [Wallace is] at all times on the field," Patriots safety James Ihedigbo said. "He's a big-play playmaker."