The Patriots will have to be physical. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
The Patriots have not had much success drafting receivers. After the fantastic 2002 draft of Deion Branch and David Givens, the Patriots have selected Bethel Johnson, PK Sam, Chad Jackson, Matthew Slater, Brandon Tate, and Taylor Price. Those six players have combined for 14 seasons, 71 receptions, 1121 yards, and 10 receiving touchdowns. Those combined figures are a great single season for a receiver, but are greatly disappointing as the cumulative total of the Patriots' draft picks.
One of the more painful missed picks is Chad Jackson from the 2006 NFL Draft. The Patriots packaged their 52nd and 75th picks and sent them to the Green Bay Packers for the 36th pick and the rights to pick WR Chad Jackson. Jackson went on to have a spectacularly awful career that was derailed with hamstring (watch out Taylor Price) and ACL injuries. The Packers spent those two picks on WR Greg Jennings, one of the best receivers in the league, and interior lineman Jason Spitz, who started for three seasons with the Packers. The Patriots are left to wonder if Jennings would have been a good fit with the Patriots and, if he was, how that would have shifted the Patriots' offense.
Ian Logue points out another relationship: The Patriots selected WR Brandon Tate with the 83rd overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft. The Steelers selected WR Mike Wallace with the 84th overall pick. Both receivers were regarded as burners who could develop to become deep threats. Tate has since been a disappointment in the receiving game, while Wallace has emerged as the best deep threat in the league.
This week, the Patriots will get to face off against Mike Wallace for the second time. Last season, Wallace burned the Patriots for 8 receptions on 11 attempts, for 136 yards and 2 TDs. However, he was limited in his yards after the catch (his usual strength) and he only gained 18 yards after receiving the ball. Pro Football Focus states that Wallace received two receptions against each of Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, James Sanders, and Brandon Meriweather. Someone will have to step up to stop Wallace in this new match-up.
In order to best Wallace, there are some facts to take into account:
Speed receivers rely a lot upon timing and fluid routes. A physical corner can either jam or influence a receiver into running away from their route in order to prevent the play from developing.
Speed receivers don't often look for contact until they've reached their full stride (ie: they're too focused on getting down the field), which means that they won't be leaning into pass interference as much as possession receivers, unless they are already down the field.
This season, the Steelers have won every game Wallace has scored and lost every game he has not.
In the victories, his longest receptions were 95, 81, 53, 48, and 40 yards. In the losses, his longest receptions were 40 and 26 yards. Limiting Wallace has been the key to victory.
Pro Football Focus states that Big Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace are 7 for 11 on throws of 20+ yards this season. They will likely attempt at least two deep throws against the Patriots.
On throws of 20+ yards, Wallace has 110 YAC (28.5% of yards). On throws of 10-20 yards, Wallace has 13 YAC (9.5%). On throws of -10 yards, Wallace has 129 YAC (62.0%). This means that Wallace makes most of his damage getting behind the cornerbacks, or on quick throws in front of the corners.
Wallace has 8 pass attempts on the left sideline. He has 22 pass attempts on the right sideline.
Looking at these numbers, it seems as if Devin McCourty will have his hands full for the majority of the game as the usual LCB. McCourty will have to stop Wallace from having a large influence on the game by eliminating the deep ball and prevent YAC in the short game. McCourty will have to be physical at the line in order to push Wallace off of his route and the Patriots must always have a safety over the top as help to prevent the deep throw.
Of course, McCourty has not been as successful as a physical corner this season as he has in the past, or even as successful as he's been in the off-zone coverage he's played this season. He will have to step up his performance if the Patriots are to slow down the Steelers' most dangerous weapon.
Seeing how most of Wallace's success has come at the deep and the short levels of the field, the Patriots defense must focus on bracketing Wallace to prevent most of his damage. McCourty will have to force Wallace off of his route and the safety must deter Wallace from continuing his route the down the field.
In order to better understand Wallace's impact, we must examine his performance from the Steelers' most recent game against the Arizona Cardinals. Wallace had a solid day of 3 receptions for 118 yards and 1 touchdown. However, if his 95 yard touchdown is ignored, the Cardinals limited Wallace to two receptions on five attempts for 23 yards. Let's look at how they limited his production for the majority of the day and what went wrong on his big play.
The Steelers are facing 3rd and 5 and are willing to throw deep to Wallace. This shows how willing they are to throw the ball deep and how confident they are in Wallace that they will risk the incompletion that would stop the drive instead of taking the quick and easy yardage to move the chains. The Steelers will launch the ball no matter what.
Wallace is matched up against rookie Patrick Peterson. The Cardinal's safety help is by the hash marks in order to help against the run. However, I feel like the Patriots should trust the linebackers and defensive line and cheat the safety over to the receivers in order to deter Big Ben from throwing the quick deep ball.
Big Ben receives the ball from the snap. Peterson forces Wallace to step towards the sideline and creates a forced route- Wallace can only run alongside the sideline since Peterson has the inside lane. Big Ben must throw over the shoulder of Wallace and place it perfectly in his hands. Too short and Peterson has the inside lane. Too far and the ball is out of bounds. The safety recognizes a pass play and drops deeper in coverage.
Big Ben is staring down Wallace and Peterson still has the upper hand. The Steelers offensive line is giving the play time to develop, but Wallace will only be open by running faster than Peterson and Peterson has his hips facing the correct direction.
The safety didn't drop deep enough and it's clear why the Patriots will have to put their safety closer to the sidelines- angles. Wallace will run straight down the field, which means that the safety has no room for false steps and bad angles. Putting the safety closer to the sideline will create another opportunity for a potential interception as Big Ben lofts the ball. In this case, Peterson is running alongside Wallace as Wallace looks back for the ball, which impedes Wallace's speed down the field. The safety doesn't have much of an impact, but it's important to evaluate.
Peterson turns too early and surrenders the deep ball by breaking his stride. He gets away with a little arm grab and Wallace breaks his concentration and is unable to finish his route and be where the ball lands. You can also see that the safety had no chance to make a play, even if Wallace caught the ball.
This is the end of the play and the ball is one step ahead of Wallace. Peterson's jam at the start of the route and his force of Wallace towards the sideline prevented Wallace from running an unimpeded route and ruined the timing of the play. The Patriots must bracket Wallace with the sideline and with an overhead safety in order to take away the deep ball. The safety must play close to Wallace, or at least the numbers on the field, in order to best take away a portion of the field.
This next route is in the red zone as the Steelers go for the dagger to finish the game.
Peterson and Wallace face off again. The safety notices something prior to the snap and starts to run to cover the deep pass to Wallace. Big Ben has yet to snap the ball, so he has a pre-snap read that dictates a pass to Wallace. Hopefully the Patriots can find out what it is.
Wallace hasn't even gone three yards down the field and Big Ben has taken three steps and is throwing off of his back foot. The ball is lofted (as it usually is to Wallace) and the Steelers have to hope that Wallace can break free of the route to make the play. Peterson, again, is bracketing Wallace with the sideline. The safety is running deep to cover the pass to Wallace and prevent a touchdown on a goal line reception.
The ball is in the air, Wallace is looking for the ball, and Peterson is not yet looking. The safety is in a good position to make a play on an overthrown ball, while also being in play to prevent any YAC if Wallace makes the catch. Peterson is still in position to stop an under-thrown ball. The Patriots need to follow this example- the safety must come in from the top of the key (ie: they must come from the deep portion of the field). If the safety is playing next to the cornerback, his value is near zero with respect to defending the pass or capitalizing on a mistake.
Big Ben lands the ball on a dime and places it right in Wallace's hand. There is almost nothing the defense could do to stop the ball from landed on Wallace's hands...
...until the safety lowers the boom into Wallace's chest and causes the drop. The position of the safety on the field is key when defending Wallace.
This is the mistake. The Steelers are extremely able to capitalize on defensive mistakes; as a result, the Patriots cannot afford to make the following mistake:
Wallace starts off on the far side, across from Peterson. The safety is on the far hashmarks in order to watch the tight end.
Wallace is motioned to the nearside and Peterson remains on the far side. The nearside corner is playing extremely far off of Wallace and the safety remains on the far hashmarks. Wallace is one-on-one with a corner who is out of position to jam Wallace or disrupt the route. There is no help over the top.
Wallace runs to the sidelines and forces the corner to turn his hips to the sideline and put his back to Wallace. Wallace uses his momentum against him and turns back to the inside to take advantage of the lack of help over the top. The safety is still by the far hashmarks. The corner didn't even try to engage Wallace in contact and that spells doom for the defense.
Big Ben launches the ball with the receiver 20 yards down the field. Wallace has cut inside and the cornerback is now a step behind. The safety is starting to cross over the field, but is still out of position to make any play. Wallace sees the end zone in front of him.
The ball enters the screen and the cornerback is no where near Wallace. The safety looks like he could be in position to make a play, but Wallace is in full stride and no player on the roster can catch Wallace in this foot race. Wallace catches the ball and is gone for a touchdown.
Looking at the breakdown, the Patriots must do the following things to limit Wallace's production:
1. Be physical at the line. The Patriots must jam Wallace at the line and must redirect Wallace towards either the sideline or towards traffic in the middle of the field to disrupt his route and force Big Ben to make a more difficult throw.
2. Cheat safety help over to Wallace. Safeties can't stand in the middle of the field if they wish to help stop Wallace. Wallace can beat most corners one-on-one, so a safety must be around to limit Wallace's options.
3. The safety must come in deep. The safety has to play deep and come running downhill towards Wallace in order to make a stop on Wallace and prevent YAC and the need to chase him down. Worst case scenario is the safety tackles Wallace after a great play. Best case is the safety can make a play on the slightly overthrown ball over the cornerback.
Wallace is one of the dangerous players on the Steelers roster. Even though Hines Ward may be hobbled, the Patriots will still have to deal with receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, who are both mid-range possession receivers with burner speed if they're in the open. The defense will also have to remove tight end Heath Miller and all of the running backs from the receiving game as Big Ben's favorite outlet receivers.
It is possible to stop Wallace, but the Patriots defense will have their hands full. Hopefully the defense can capitalize on a couple poor throws and put the game out of reach early in the game.