By Alan Robinson
LATROBE–Life for the Steelers without Mike Wallace officially begins today, the first day the Steelers hit the practice fields — there are four of them — at St. Vincent College.
No pads, by the way. That doesn’t come until Monday. But that also didn’t discourage cars from lining up before 9 a.m. to be the first into camp.
So what did Wallace mean to the Steelers, besides his 235 catches for 4,042 yards, 32 touchdowns and 7.6 yards per carry average on 20 carries during four seasons in which he was billed as the NFL’s fastest wide receiver?
Time and attention.
Defensive coordinators were forced to devote practice time every week to a player who could — football cliche alert — take the top off that defense on potentially every play.
Defenses also were forced to devote a safety to him on numerous plays, if only because he could outrace almost every cornerback in the league when he was downfield with the football.
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley isn’t worried his current group of receivers — Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton, Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress — lack the the speed to be an upper-tier productive group.
“I think we’ve got fast guys as it is. I think these other guys would probably be offended if you called them slow,” Haley said during last month’s minicamp. “Mike, obviously, was a rare speed guy but I view [Antonio Brown] and Emmanuel [Sanders] and potentially some of these young guys as rare speed guys. If you look in the Hall of Fame there are not many sub-4.4 guys in there. I mentioned Keyshawn (Johnson), but Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, don’t tell them, but those guys had a hard time breaking 4.5. We’ve got plenty of speed so not a lot is going to change from that standpoint. We’re still going to use our players to their strengths as best we can and we just have to win more games.”
Win more games is a theme at this camp, by the way.
Sanders already seems to be taking ownership of the position vacated by Wallace. He took the unusual step of staying in Pittsburgh during what commonly is out-of-town workout and vacation time for NFL players, staying with strength and conditioning coach Garrett Giemont and working out at a mostly empty Steelers training complex.
“Ever since I came into the NFL, I wanted to be a starter,” Sanders said. “Now the opportunity is here for me to start training camp as a starter, and I’m working extremely hard hard — so when the ball comes my way I can do something with it.”
He explained why he took vacation time in Pittsburgh.
“I usually train in Dallas, at my old school (SMU), but I stayed with Garrett and stayed around here, I was able to watch film and have the whole Steelers facility to myself.”
Sanders understands he will be expected to match Wallace’s production, if not his speed.
“It’s going to be different for me and AB, Mike has been been here since we came into the NFL,” Sanders said. “But being in the NFL, you have to be able to adjust, so when guys leave, guys like myself have to step up and I’m more than prepared for the opportunity.”
There’s another pro head coach in the Steelers camp. Orlando Magic coach Jacque Vaughn is visiting with coach Mike Tomlin for several days, seeing how a successful coach deals with the multitude of problems that come with having 90 players in camp rather than one-quarter than many.