- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Make no mistake, a Patriots secondary susceptible to giving up big chunks of yards at times this season is well aware of the exploits of Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace. In fact, containing the speedy pass-catcher might be priority No. 1 this weekend for the New England defense.
Wallace has already produced six plays of 30 yards or more this season, including a 95-yard touchdown grab last weekend against the Cardinals. Wallace is a burner, there's no doubt, but Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty stressed there's even more to his game this year.
"Everybody in the league is taking notice that he’s running better routes, more routes, and they’re using him in different places," said McCourty.
The Patriots know plenty about the damage Wallace can do. In last season's meeting in Pittsburgh, he caught eight passes for 136 yards and a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. Yes, the Patriots were comfortably ahead by the time Wallace did much of his damage, but he's got potential to reach the end zone on every single snap.
With that in mind, let's put last year's second touchdown grab under the microscope to showcase how dangerous his speed can be:
The situation: 3rd and 2 at the Patriots 33, New England with an 18-point lead with little more than three minutes to play. The Steelers spread the field with four receivers (and a back for protection) with Wallace alone on the left side. The Patriots will essentially drop seven into coverage with the specific goal of preventing the big play.
Here's a look from the coaches' video high above the field. The Steelers easily pick up the rush, giving quarterback Ben Roethlisberger all sorts of time. Sergio Brown bumps Wallace off the line and releases him into zone coverage where safety Brandon Meriweather picks him up in the middle of the field (before picking up Antwaan Randle El over the middle). Roethlisberger has nothing available early on as tight end Heath Miller trips and everyone else is covered. But by keeping the play alive with his feet, Roethlisberger allows Wallace to bust the zone with his speed.
Safety James Sanders is the center fielder in this cover-3 and he simply gets outraced by Wallace as Roethlisberger delivers a pretty deep ball to the right side of the end zone. McCourty is patrolling the area in front of where the throw is delivered, but is late getting back to aid coverage as he seems locked on Miller, even after he stumbles with linebacker Jerod Mayo nearby.
There's really no reason this should happen with seven defenders covering four receivers, including three in the deep part of the field. Alas, Wallace's speed rips apart even the most preventative of defenses. Here's some more chatter this week about Wallace:
Patriots coach Bill Belichick: "He’s a big play receiver. He’s really fast. Nobody is going to catch him, so you have to be careful about how much space he gets when he catches the ball. I think he’s improved a lot from when we played them last year, just as a football player, his patience and route technique. He has great speed but he also is getting better at route technique, setting up routes, using his speed, changing his pace. He’s good after the catch with the ball in his hands. He breaks tackles and eludes people, does a nice job of going up and getting the ball in the deep part of the field, he’s taken it away from some defensive backs. I’d say overall [he] improved his route running in the red area where there’s less space. He still is a key guy down there. He did a lot of things well last year, doing them well this year and even better. [He’s made] plays in just about every game. He stretches the field but he can also take a short pass and turn it into a long run, so you have to defend him from the line of scrimmage to the back of the end zone and from sideline to sideline. He’s a tough guy to match up on. He’s done a good job. Obviously he’s worked hard and he’s being well coached and he’s got a good quarterback and other good receivers to complement him. He’s part of their very productive offense."
Patriots personnel director Nick Caserio: "Coming out he was a big, fast receiver. His production, just in a relative base – I think he had back-to-back 30-catch years. Some of that was the offense, some of that was some other factors but since he’s been in the league, since year one up until this point, he’s really improved just as an overall receiver. I think he was big and could always run. He’s just become more consistent in all phases – route running, catching the ball, understanding coverages, just understanding how the defense is playing. Really these last couple years, including this year, he’s played at a very high level. He had a real productive year for their offense last year. I think he’s averaged, I want to say, 20 yards or close to 20 yards a catch since he’s been in the league, so he’s always been a big play receiver who can attack the third level part of the defense – the vertical part of the defense. He’s done some other things just with the underneath route running and he’s improved. It’s a credit to him and a credit to the Pittsburgh coaching staff for what they’ve done with him."
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger: "He's a fun guy to play football with. He’s just got a contagious smile and he’s fast and he’s fun to throw it to and when you throw him the ball and he gets it in his hands and he’s behind defenders, you know no one is going to catch him. He does some great things for opening up other guys on our offense as well."