Wilson: Pace makes the race

The 1-3 Steelers must deal with injuries to Joey Porter, his backup James Harrison, and Deshea Townsend, not to mention Ben Roethlisberger's struggles and the issues along the offensive line. A change at another position -- wide receiver -- could go a long way in making up for all of it.

Here we are, five weeks into the Pittsburgh Steelers' season, and there are still too many unanswered questions. Ben Roethlisberger's mental state after this summer's motorcycle accident -- and a zero touchdown, seven interception performance through three games -- is chief among them, but with the news that the Steelers could be without both Joey Porter and Deshea Townsend for this Sunday's game, the team has other issues. Like depth. How will former backup-to-the-backup Arnold Harrison perform in Porter's role? And will newly-signed octogenarian Chad Brown be allowed on the field in his wheelchair? At cornerback, Bryant McFadden could get his first start of the season -- which is great -- but after him, then what?

I've said it before: adversity brings out the worst in me. First, it's denial, usually followed by mockery. I'm still in the denial stage. Which means I think Harrison will be serviceable, but should quiet all those critics who think Joey Porter an overrated chump, and I expect McFadden to play like he did his rookie season. Plus, whining about injuries and the like make you sound like a baby -- or worse, a Seahawks fan. So you won't hear me complaining about the loss of Porter, Townsend, James Harrison, or Willie Reid, or the lingering issues with Roethlisberger, Hines Ward or Troy Polamalu. (Did I miss anyone? Oh right, Kendall Simmons.) Instead, I thought I'd answer a question that's been on the minds of a lot of Steelers fans lately: What should Pittsburgh do about their wide receivers?

When Pittsburgh signed Cedrick Wilson before the 2005 season, I thought it was a smart move. Granted, I had no idea who Wilson was, but he was cheap, had a pretty good season with a hapless 49ers team, and would provide long-term insurance against possibly losing Antwaan Randle El, who's now $11 million richer and playing in Washington.

Well, I think it's safe to say the honeymoon's over for Wilson. He struggled -- and that's putting it kindly -- for most of the 2005 regular season and didn't really put together back-to-back solid performances until the postseason. He's off to another slow start in 2006, and if the second half of Sunday's Chargers game was an indication of things to come his days as Pittsburgh's No. 2 wide receiver could be over shortly. To be fair, almost all of Pittsburgh's pass catchers have blown chunks this season, but Wilson's numbers are particularly vomit-worthy. According to Football Outsiders here's how the Steelers' receiving corps ranked on a total value basis (DPAR) and a value per play basis (DVOA). Be warned, it ain't pretty:

          DPAR DVOA Passes Yards TD Catch%
Wilson     70   72    17    102   0   35
Ward       72   68    32    148   1   41
Washington 39   16    16    117   1   56
Miller      4    2    13    168   1   69
Holmes didn't have enough receptions to qualify for the list, but of the receivers with fewer than 15 passes, he ranked 22nd out of 45 in DPAR and had a catch percentage of 54. Moreover, he had a higher total value, and value per play than either Ward or Wilson.

Aside from the fact that Ward is off to an absolutely dreadful start -- he's worse, at least statistically, than Wilson -- the fact that both Washington and Holmes are more than holding their own is very encouraging. I don't think anybody's worried about Ward -- he's usually good for close to 100 catches, 1,000 yards, and a lot of vicious blocks on unsuspecting linebackers and safeties -- and, if anything, he's still not fully healthy from a preseason hammy injury. In fact, from 2002-2005, Ward ranked, on average, 10th in DPAR and 7th in DVOA; he also caught two-thirds of passes thrown to him. Not too shabby.

On the other hand, Wilson doesn't have quite the illustrious track record to fall back on, or an injury to blame for his lack of production. In fact, other than pointing the finger at Benjy Rustyberger (catchy, I know), he doesn't really have much of an excuse. The good news is that Wilson has been consistent, no matter who's taking snaps. Consistently ineffective, but consistent, nonetheless. In 2005, Big Ben was one of the highest rated quarterbacks in the league and Wilson still managed to finish 67th in total value and 60th in total value per play. This season, with Rustyberger not quite in franchise QB form, Wilson still stinks.

So what does all of this mean? For starters, I think it's time to usher in the Nate Washington/Santonio Holmes era. Things can't get any worse, right? And as long as Rustyberger's still getting comfortable with his receivers, why not use the ones who'll be around after this season? Make Wilson the No. 4 wideout, which is about the level he's performing right now. Sure, he might not like it, but so what? If he wants sympathy, join Oprah's book club; if he wants more snaps, quit playing like crap.

I know a lot of fans are already on the ledge with one foot dangling, but like Dale Lolley mentioned after the Chargers game, winning solves a lot of problems. Mixing things up at wideout -- and the wheels were put in motion during the second half of last week's game when Holmes saw time as the No. 2 -- is a good start.

It also might be a good idea to get Heath Miller more involved. Now, I'm not going to do a lot of yelling and screaming because Miller hasn't had much of an impact since Week 1 -- other teams do game plan against him -- but I wouldn't mind seeing Ken Whisenhunt make a special effort to get the second-year tight end more involved, maybe on a few plays designed specifically for him. And I'm not talking about some gadget play that takes four minutes to develop -- we saw how that worked out last week. I'm talking about something as straightforward as a play-action rollout pass that's drawn up to gain six yards but could go for a lot more.

I mean, he's the fourth best tight end in the NFL on the 22nd worst passing team. That says something. Like, "THROW ME THE BALL BECAUSE I'M A SOLDJA!" Whoops, wrong AFC North tight end. But the point's still valid: Get Miller more involved, even if it's some simple stuff. Not only do good things happen when he's given opportunities, but throwing to the tight end is usually a low-risk way to get Rustyberger some confidence. (Unless, of course, the Steelers are in the red zone and playing the Bengals.)

Either that, or trade for Randy Moss or Jerry Porter. And yes, I'm kidding. First, I'm quite certain that Moss's contract is so prohibitive that he's staying in Oakland. Or at the very least, if he is traded, it won't be to Pittsburgh. Second, I don't care if the Boy Scouts of America hold a special awards banquet recognizing Jerry Porter as the Swellest Guy on the Planet. More important than his attitude is the fact that's he's not very good. Or at least not good enough to be worth a first-day draft pick. And furthermore, like my buddy Andy said yesterday, the Steelers already had Porter; his name was Plaxico Burress and a lot of fans didn't like him.

              DPAR DVOA Yards TD Catch%
Burress(02-05) 34   31  1023   6   51
Porter (03-05) 52   58   767   5   50
So instead of following the step-by-step manual for How to Build a Team Through Overreaction and Other Questionable Business Decisions written by the Washington Redskins, I think it might be prudent to see what Nate Washington and Santonio Holmes can do. You know, since they're on the team already and won't cost the Steelers anything.

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