Saturday, December 7, 2013

Mike Wallace's Homecoming Is A Must-Win For Steelers

It’s like a playoff, must-win atmosphere,” said Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. “Both teams are in the hunt for the playoffs....This is a huge game. It’s going to tell a lot. This game is like a playoff game.”

After being on the road the past two weeks, the Steelers will be glad to be home again. But they aren't the only ones who will have a homecoming.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace returns to Heinz Field Sunday where he averaged 17.2 yards per catch on 235 receptions in four seasons with the Steelers. He had more touchdowns of 40 yards or longer with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (14) than any other duo in franchise history, a number that was also second all-time in the NFL (behind Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne).

Though Wallace's receptions haven't diminished this season (his 56 catches have him on a career-high pace), his impact has. His yards per catch has dropped to 13.3 YPC and he has only three touchdowns.

Wallace seems, however, to have been peeking at the schedule - in what might be perceived as a dress rehearsal of sorts, he has 12 receptions for 209 yards and two of his three scores in the last two games.

But Wallace isn't the only threat. The aforementioned Taylor usually draws the assignment of the opponent's No. 1 WR, meaning he'd likely cover Brian Hartline. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has a lot of respect for Hartline, and rightly so as he leads the Dolphins in receptions (62) and yards (804).

But Taylor has surrendered more yards than any other cornerback this year, with 854 to date. Wallace, on the other hand, is a receiver who is 61st at his position in receiving yards, despite being the NFL’s 15th-most targeted receiver.

Regardless, the Steelers have given up seven passing plays of at least 50 yards this season, so whoever draws Wallace will get have to have safety help over the top. The last thing defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau wants is for Wallace to have another big game at Heinz Field.

"Mike's one of the faster receivers in the league and he's got good run-after-the-catch," said LeBeau. "You could say, make sure he doesn't get behind you, but if you get too far off him he can catch it in front of you, and he's hard to get on the ground."

So, as LeBeau would also point out, defensing the "ball in the air" and tackling the catch (if caught) thereafter is imperative. But there's something else that's even more important.

"I've said this many times," LeBeau added, "that the best pass defense is sack the quarterback, so he can't throw it."

Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 45 times this season and has a poor QB rating when under duress, which is similar to his QB rating (63.5) on throws toward Wallace. So hurrying, harassing and hitting him is especially important this Sunday. Whether LaMarr Woodley or Jason Worilds, a relentless pass rush is vital. -

Historically, when taking into account players like Paul Warfield, Bob Griese, The Marks Brothers and Dan Marino on one side, and Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake on the other, if I had told you that this Sunday's game was a matchup between the NFL's ninth-ranked pass defense and its eight-ranked passing offense, you'd probably have the opponents transposed in your mind.

But when the Dolphins visit the Steelers this Sunday, the Steelers passing game will test its mettle against the top-ten passing defense of the Dolphins. A pass defense that is spearheaded by seven-year cornerback Brent Grimes.

The soft-spoken veteran quietly leads the Dolphins with four interceptions, one of which he returned 94 yards for a touchdown, and with 14 passes defended. As of last week, he ranked as the second-best cornerback in league according to Pro Football Focus. He hasn't allowed a touchdown all season and quarterbacks have a rating of under 63.0 when throwing to his coverage area.

The 5'10", 180-pound CB has great hips and will likely draw the Steelers WR Antonio Brown. Grimes' ability to turn and run will be needed against the Energizer Bunny that is AB, who has the third-highest receiving grade per Pro Football Focus.

Because of what they run schematically, Grimes is used to being on an island, mainly on the left, and will need that experience against AB, though AB does move around the formation almost half of the time.

But a big reason Grimes and the rest of the Dolphins' secondary do so well is because of their front seven - a group mainly responsible for their defense having a takeaway in each game this season and for 37 QB sacks, led by their defensive ends.

In that case, it is that very aspect of the Steelers offense, AB's moving around the formation, that will be needed Sunday. Spacing will be important. Spread Miami out and keep them spread. Also, a bunch & 1 formation highlighting AB alone on one side should be effective as well.

Additionally, five total receiving targets keeping the secondary occupied opens lanes for Le'Veon Bell. When running to the strong side, the Steelers have extra help with tight end Matt Spaeth being activated Saturday. If the Dolphins vacate to defend the pass, then running to the left would be an option as well.

Either option is predicated upon the patchwork offensive line. Cody Wallace will start at center, the Steelers' third this season, and starting right guard David DeCastro is not likely to return to the lineup. So, the probable lineup will be:

LT-Mike Adams
LG-Ramon Foster
C-Cody Wallace
RG-Guy Whimper
RT-Marcus Gilbert

It is Steelers' tackles Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert, though, who will have the biggest jobs as they will have to contend with Dolphins' DEs Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake respectively. Olivier leads the Dolphins with 10.5 sacks and Wake has 6.5 sacks of his own. They will be a handful for the Steelers tackles, especially Adams. -

"They have multiple guys that can rush the passer," Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "Adversity, and how you handle it, is really the key thing. You can handle it in a couple of different ways. [Adams] has chosen to handle it in a positive manner and it's allowed him to work harder and get better, knowing that his opportunity would come up again." -

It will likely come down to how the Steelers handle the Dolphins' pass rush as to set their offense in motion. In four career games against the Dolphins, QB Ben Roethlisberger has a 108.2 QB rating.

All of Big Ben's Houdini-like tricks will be needed in order to help combat the newest hits taken to the OLine. If he can and if the Steelers current No. 1 WR can outplay their former No. 1 WR, they can take the game and take one step closer to a potential playoff run.


TIDBITS: Steelers Injury Report - Missing practice for the Steelers on Friday: Keisel, Beachum, DeCastro and McLendon. Woodley was limited. Adams and Le'Veon were full participants.

The Steelers medical staff will continue to monitor Le'Veon Bell’s status through the week to make sure he continues without symptoms. At present, he is probable.


Steelers activate TE Matt Spaeth from the IR/Designate list, get a little blocking help:


Earlier this week, the Steelers signed C/G David Snow to active roster; C Brandon Jones replaces CB Devin Smith on PS. They have signed center/guard David Snow. They were granted a roster exemption for OT Butler after he was placed on the Exempt List.