Mike Wallace holdout begins

Both sides seem to be digging in:

Mike Wallace’s speed is his biggest asset. His slowness in reporting to training camp — at least in the Steelers’ minds — is suddenly his biggest liability.

The Steelers did a not-so-slow burn Wednesday when the super-fast Wallace, ignoring the Steelers’ history of refusing to negotiate when a player is not in camp, declined to sign his $2.472 million tender offer and did not show up at St. Vincent College.

Wallace and the Steelers have been working on a multi-year contract for some time — teammate Emmanuel Sanders suggested the two sides were close — but the Steelers always shut down such talks when a player isn’t in camp. This won’t be an exception.

Let’s see how this plays out. The Steelers are taking a hard line on their policy of no negotiations for players holding out, but this might just spiral out of control.

Meanwhile, Mike Tomlin got a much-deserved contract extension. Shockingly, one idiot on ESPN actually criticized extending a coach that has been to two Super Bowls with one title. It’s another example of too many talking heads debating both sides of every conceivable issue.

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2012 NFL Free Agency: Breaking down the Wide Receivers

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson celebrates a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills in the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Orchard Park, New York October 9, 2011. REUTERS/Doug Benz (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Free agency in the NFL begins on March 13 and leading up to that date I’ll go position by position while highlighting the best players, best bargains, as well as the riskiest investments.

Best in Class: Take your pick.
This is the deepest pool of free agent receivers that I’ve seen in a long time. Wes Welker, Mike Wallace, Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston, Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson, DeSean Jackson, Reggie Wayne and Robert Meachem comprise the top 10 free agents, but Mario Manningham, Laurent Robinson and Harry Douglas could also be available next month. Welker seems like a perfect fit for the Patriots’ offense and will likely stay in New England, but Wallace could be available if the Steelers can’t figure out a way to fit him under their cap. When healthy and not in the midst of a contract holdout, V-Jax is one of the more versatile receivers in the league in that he’s a vertical threat with soft hands who can also block in the running game. Bowe, Colston, Lloyd, Johnson, Jackson and Wayne have been, or still are No. 1 options in the passing game and Meachem certainly has the talent to be a No. 1 given his skill set. Teams needing a receiver have no excuse not to address that hole this offseason.

The Biggest Risk: DeSean Jackson
Jackson is only 25 and is drenched in big play ability. But he has 35 drops over the last four seasons, was a ghost at times last year because he was seemingly worried about his contract situation, and sometimes costs his team on the field with his immaturity. Because of his big play ability and success as a punt returner, plenty of teams will be interested in Jackson’s services next month. But with so many other free agent receivers available, teams weary of his inconsistency and maturity issues can cross his name off the list if they want to. His agent must pull his hair out thinking about how much money Jackson has cost himself over the past year.

The Best Value: Brandon Lloyd
Lloyd is still going to be paid like a low-end No. 1 but at 31 he’ll be cheaper than guys like Welker, Jackson, Bowe, Wallace and Colston. He didn’t post the same numbers in 2011 as he did in 2010 but don’t forget that the quarterback situation in Denver was brutal and Sam Bradford couldn’t stay healthy in St. Louis (the team Lloyd was traded to midseason). Even at 31, Lloyd is an explosive downfield threat who also has a large catch radius. The Rams would be wise to keep him in St. Louis but if he were to hit the open market, he could turn out to be a real value for his eventual production.

Best Cost-Effective Bargain: Robert Meachem
Meachem doesn’t have the numbers or name power as other receivers that could become available next month but at 27 his ceiling is still somewhat high. He’s consistent, as he’s averaged a touchdown every 10 receptions in the regular season and has just 11 drops over the last four years. He may never develop into a No. 1 but he’s worth a shot for a team like Jacksonville that is thin at receiver and has other holes to address this offseason (and thus, might not want to spend big at one position). Meachem could wind up being a cost-effective alternative to Jackson, Bowe, Colston and the other big-name receivers in this free agent pool.

2012 NFL Playoffs: Five Questions for Wildcard Weekend

Every Tuesday throughout the NFL season I’ll discuss five of the biggest questions surrounding that week’s slate of action. This week it’s Wildcard Weekend in the NFL, as the playoffs kick off on Saturday. Can the Lions and Broncos pull off major upsets? Which team will show up in East Rutherford? Will the Texans have T.J. Yates at quarterback versus Cincinnati? Let’s dive in.

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford congratulates New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (R) after the Saints beat the Lions 31-17 in their NFL football game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana December 4, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

1. Can the Lions slay the Saints?
Eight opponents walked into the Superdome this year with high hopes of pulling off an upset and all eight walked out with red bottoms after being spanked by a Saints team that has been unbeatable at home this season. Seeing as how the Lions were among the eight opponents who the Saints carved up this season, they seemingly don’t have a shot this Saturday when they travel back to New Orleans in the opening round of the playoffs. (Oddsmakers certainly don’t think the Lions have much of a shot, as Detroit opened as a 10.5-point underdog.) That said, the Lions do posses a legit quarterback in Matthew Stafford, one of the best players in football in Calvin Johnson, and a front four that’s capable of getting after Drew Brees. Remember, due to his two-game suspension for stomping on Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith, the Lions were without Ndamukong Suh the first time these two teams met. The only tried and true method to beating an elite quarterback like Brees is to pressure him with your front four. Blitzing doesn’t work, because he’s so comfortable in Sean Payton’s offense that he’ll beat one-on-one coverage or quickly find holes in the defense. While there’s no doubt the Lions have their hands full this weekend, they’re a damn good football team when they don’t beat themselves (which, unfortunately, is rare). In fact, if it weren’t for a couple of costly penalties and big drops by Lion receivers, Detroit may have come back against the Saints earlier this year in New Orleans. We’ll see if the boys from Motown can keep their composure and pull off the biggest upset of the weekend.

2 & 3. Can Tebow prove his critics wrong/Can the Steelers shake out of their offensive funk?
This will be a two-parter. When your quarterback can’t complete more than six passes when a division title and a trip to the postseason are on the line, critics will come out in droves. Tim Tebow was simply brutal in the Broncos’ Week 17 loss to the Chiefs, leaving even his staunchest supporters to leap off his bandwagon. But let’s keep in mind that Denver’s defense continues to play at a high level and kicker Matt Prater is almost a guarantee from all distances. Plus, it’s not like the Steelers are pictures of perfect health. Long before Rashard Mendenhall tore up his knee in the final regular season game of the year, Ben Roethlisberger suffered a high ankle sprain that he hasn’t fully recovered from. It’s clear that Pittsburgh’s offense is in a major funk and while its defense shouldn’t have much trouble shutting down Tebow this weekend, it’s not like the Broncos don’t have the capabilities of pulling off an upset if they keep things close. Champ Bailey had his hands full with Dwayne Bowe last Sunday and Pittsburgh’s speedy receiving corps highlighted by Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown is a mismatch for Denver’s secondary. But will the offensive line give Big Ben time to throw? The Broncos’ strength defensively is in their ability to rush the passer. It won’t matter if Wallace and Brown shake loose in Denver’s secondary if Roethlisberger is constantly under pressure. That said, if Kansas City was able to hold Denver to just three points on the road, Pittsburgh’s defense is liable to pitch a shut out. That wasn’t meant to be a knock on Romeo Crennel’s defense, which is highly underrated, but Dick LeBeau’s complicated scheme could have Tebow’s head spinning. In what figures to be a low-scoring game, it’ll be interesting to see if Denver’s defense can come up big one more time and if Tebow has any magic left in those legs of his.

4. Which teams will show up in East Rutherford?
While there are obvious differences between the two teams, the Falcons and Giants mirror each other in many ways. First and foremost, they’re both highly inconsistent. The Giants proved that they have the weapons to upset the Patriots in Foxboro and sweep the Cowboys to make the postseason, but this is the same team that also lost to Seattle and Washington at home. The Falcons, meanwhile, beat the Lions in Detroit and nearly defeated the Saints at home, but managed just 13 points in a Week 3 loss to the Buccaneers and almost blew double-digit leads against Seattle, Tennessee and Minnesota. Both coaching staffs tend to play things too conservatively when they have a lead or are playing in tight games. Where Green Bay and New Orleans don’t stop attacking you until the final seconds tick off the clock, Atlanta and New York have a habit of taking their foot off the gas. In the case of the Giants, they have often fallen behind and had to play catch up in the fourth quarter. As for the Falcons, they like to build a lead and slowly give it away in the second half. But both teams also have fast defenses, good running games, weapons in the receiving corps, and are led by solid quarterbacks in Eli Manning and Matt Ryan. In other words, both teams have the capability of taking it to an opponent if they happen to be firing on all cylinders that day. But the key words in that previous sentence are “happen to,” because you just never know which team will bother show up.

5. Will the Texans be able to overcome injuries yet again?
It’s a marvel the Texans have made it this far. It truly is. They lost their starting quarterback in Matt Schaub, his backup in Matt Leinart, their top defender in Mario Williams, and they’ve had to go much of the season without leading receiver Andre Johnson, too. Now T.J. Yates is hurt. Has a team ever hosted a playoff game after its top three quarterbacks all went down with injuries during the regular season? Furthermore, has a team ever advanced in the postseason without its top three quarterbacks? While the Texans insist that Yates (separated shoulder) will play this Saturday versus Cincinnati, there are reports out of Houston that suggest he may be done for the year. If that’s the case, then it’s Jake Delhomme time, which is scary if you’re a Texans fan. I don’t care if he did nearly bring Houston back last week against Tennessee: Delhomme is a turnover waiting to happen. If the Texans can’t control the game with Arian Foster and Ben Tate, then there’s a good chance that the Bengals will be advancing to the Divisional Round next week. It’s going to be an interesting afternoon in Houston this Saturday, to say the least.

Five future stars of Super Bowl XLV

Green Bay Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji (90) returns an interception for an 18-yard touchdown during the fourth quarter of their NFC Championship playoff game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago on January 23, 2011. UPI /Mark Cowan

With the Super Bowl less than seven days away, the names Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Clay Matthews will continue to be talked about ad nauseam over the next week. So for one article, let’s focus on some of the other players in this year’s title game that are on their way to becoming future stars. You know, the “little guys” of the big game. (Actually, there’s nothing “little” about B.J. Raji so pardon my poor choice of words.)

1. Tramon Williams, CB, Packers
Williams has already arrived, so it’s kind of cheap to call him a “future star.” He made the Pro Bowl this year and received a contract extension a few months ago, so obviously the Packers and the rest of the league are well aware of how good he is. That said, it wasn’t until this year before he really emerged as one of the best corners in the league, so it’s fair to talk about his future prowess. He intercepted a career-high six passes and has three picks in the postseason alone. His two interceptions of Matt Ryan in the Divisional Round turned that game on its head and basically catapulted the Packers to an easy victory. There isn’t a more underrated matchup than his upcoming battle with Steelers’ receiver Mike Wallace in this year’s Super Bowl. (Assuming that Charles Woodson covers Hines Ward, that is.)

2. Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers
The second-year receiver out of Ole Miss has already made headlines this season with his deep-threat ability. Observers were worried about how the Steelers would cope after trading Santonio Holmes to the Jets last offseason, but Wallace has made everyone forget about the former Super Bowl MVP. He finished the regular season with 60 catches for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns, which included seven 100-yard games. He’s a rising star on an already stacked Steelers team and should be a player to keep an eye on for years to come.

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Will Ryan error in putting Cromartie on Wallace again?

Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Wallace pulls in a pass and runs away from Carolina Panthers Nic Harris for 43 yards and a touchdown in the second quarter at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 23, 2010. UPI/Archie Carpenter

Far be it for anyone to question one of Rex Ryan’s defensive game plans. As much as fans and members of the media think they know about the game, we actually know very little about the X’s and O’s and what it takes to run a defense in the NFL.

That said, I found something that Rotowold.com wrote very interesting about Ryan’s potential game plan this Sunday when it comes to covering Steelers’ receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace.

Manish Mehta of the NY Daily News predicts that the Jets will use Darrelle Revis to cover Hines Ward in the AFC Championship Game.

Mehta anticipates Antonio Cromartie covering Mike Wallace. It’s the same way the Jets played Pittsburgh in Week 15, and Wallace went off for 110 yards while Revis held Ward to 34 on two catches. It’d be a mistake, as far as we’re concerned. Using Revis on the declining, 34-year-old Ward would be a waste when the shutdown corner has the ability to eliminate Pittsburgh’s true No. 1 receiver. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will remain potential difference makers as they prepare for Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman.

I think the idea is that since Cromartie has more speed, he can match up better with Wallace. But as Pierre Garcon proved two weeks ago, if Cromartie isn’t allowed to get his hands on receivers at the line of scrimmage and be physical with them out of their stance, he’s liable to get burned deep. And considering Wallace averages over 20 yards per reception, that’s a concern that Ryan should have if he wants Cromartie to shadow the young wideout.

But as Rotoworld points out, this is just a “prediction” by Mehta. Who knows what coverage Ryan will unveil this Sunday in Pittsburgh. He’s well aware of the speed that the Steelers’ wideouts posses and he’s not going to put his defenders in a position to fail. Nobody was more irate at Cromartie on that Garcon touchdown than Ryan was, so he’s well aware of what could happen this weekend if he puts him on Wallace.

Or if he isn’t, then things could get real interesting on Sunday when Pittsburgh drops back to pass.

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