Losing a wide receiver is familiar territory for the Steelers. They've parted ways with Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward in recent years. The reason Pittsburgh has been able to move forward without them goes back to its backup plan.
The Steelers traded Holmes because they had Mike Wallace. They released Ward because they had Antonio Brown. Now, with Mike Wallace signing a five-year deal that averages $13 million per season, the next receiver who needs to step up is Emmanuel Sanders. In his three seasons, Sanders is known more for his injuries (especially his fake one) than his big plays.
How much the Steelers miss Wallace depends on Sanders' ability to raise his game. Sanders has outstanding speed. He just doesn't have the numbers.
It's a big void for Sanders to fill. No player in the NFL has more 40-yard receptions since 2009 than Wallace (27), and his 16 touchdown catches of 40 yards or longer are also an NFL high during that span. In three seasons, Sanders has 21 catches over 20 yards and none over 40 yards.
Wallace may have been a one-trick pony, as coach Mike Tomlin once called him, but ability to run the deep route always proved valuable. Sanders' best trick so far has been faking a leg cramp to save the Steelers an injury.
There will be more pressure on the Steelers' passing game this year because Wallace isn't the only loss. The status of tight end Heath Miller is uncertain after he tore his ACL in the second-to-last regular-season game.
Yes, there was no way the cap-strapped Steelers had a chance to keep Wallace, even if he agreed to take half of what he got from the Dolphins. And yes, Wallace isn't a great fit for the Steelers' offense if coordinator Todd Haley sticks with the short passing game.
Still, what the Steelers will miss the most about Wallace is the threat of him going deep. Teams couldn't drop a safety down on his side of the field because the Steelers were one deep Ben Roethlisberger pass from a Wallace touchdown.
This is what Pittsburgh loses in going from Wallace to Sanders. They were both third-round picks. They both have speed. But defenses don't fear Sanders like they do Wallace. If defenses don't respect Sanders by the end of the season, the Steelers' passing game will struggle.