Mike Wallace got used to being a 1,000-yard receiver during his days with the Pittsburgh Steelers, although he admits his task in the early days, when the Steelers had Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller was more simplistic. Back then, the charge was: “Go deep, Mike.”
These days it’s not so simple. Wallace came to the Minnesota Vikings in a trade from Miami after the Vikings sent Greg Jennings packing. Wallace, by far the speedier of the two, came with a $9.9 million price tag this year, second on the team behind only Adrian Peterson’s $15.4 million salary cap figure. Next year, that figure is slated to rise to $11.5 million.
Wallace has two years remaining on his contract, but none of it is guaranteed and he admitted he’s basically on a year-to-year deal.
He is on pace for 69 catches for 779 yards – both would tease his career lows – but they are through no real fault of his own. His pedestrian production this year is a function of the offense and how it’s built.
Norv Turner’s offenses have become known for a power running game and deep passing game. The Vikings have gotten to the first part of that with Peterson averaging 20 carries a game. The second stage is yet to come, Wallace maintains, but even he is a bit surprised it hasn’t happened very often yet.
“It is (a surprise). But we know who our running back is, too,” he says. “It’s a little different.”
Wallace’s reputation as one that could become salty with a lack of attention in the offense is something he has worked hard to erase in Minnesota. From his arrival, he has said that element was overblown and that chilly part has held off as much as the cold this fall. In short, there has been no public grousing from the veteran receiver.
But as the Vikings have developed rookie Stefon Diggs as a quickly emerging star in the offense the last three games – he’s averaging over 100 yards per game played – Wallace is patiently biding his time.
If the defensive attention continues to focus on Peterson in the running game, the natural assumption is that eventually the pass coverage will shade Diggs’ way, given his production of late.
“Definitely. Why not? If you’ve got two guys out there and one’s going for a hundred and one’s going for 30, 40, you’re going to want to switch that up,” Wallace said. “Honestly, I don’t think the coverage is dictated by any one of us. I think it’s more so by 28 (Peterson). The guy we have running the football is the guy that really dictates the coverage more so than our wide receivers.”
It would seem natural, then, that the more defenses commit to pounding on Peterson the more it would open things up for the deep passing game. But if opposing defensive backs are working to keep Wallace and Diggs – both with above-average speed – in front of them, then it would figure that the intermediate zone vacated by linebackers is the one to attack.
That’s exactly what Wallace indicated is happening.
“Honestly, I don’t really feel like we call that many deep routes like that either. I don’t think we call them as much as some people might think we call them,” he said. “We really call a lot of intermediate routes. I wouldn’t say (Teddy Bridgewater) needs time, I think we’re doing what the defense is giving us. We’re moving the ball with the things that we’re doing. It’s been working well so we’re continuing what we’re doing.”
Diggs took advantage of that last Sunday. The Lions secondary was starting to bite on those intermediate routes and Diggs set up cornerback Rashean Mathis beautifully. He started on an intermediate out route and just when Mathis broke on that, Diggs turned it up field and capped the route like Superman flying through the air to lay out for a diving 36-yard touchdown that gave the Vikings a third-quarter lead they never relinquished.
Wallace has proven in the past he can do similar things. He was a 1,000-yard receiver in 2010 and 2011 and averaged more than 16 yards a catch in his first three seasons. But don’t expect envy and jealousy pouring out of Wallace’s veins. Instead, he continues to credit Diggs’ precision as a rookie, unlike that “just go deep, Mike” way of Wallace’s rookie campaign in Pittsburgh.
“We’re both speed players, but Diggs is a lot more polished than I was coming out of college,” Wallace said. “Coming out of college, he had a good wide receiving coach. I had a good wide receiving coach in college, but my role was different. College it was like, ‘Mike, just run past this guy.’ I had my guy, Dexter McCluster on my team running a lot of short routes underneath and another guy who we used for intermediate. It was never just doing everything. It was always like I was the deep guy, he was the short guy and the intermediate. I didn’t have that many routes coming out of college. Diggs is running the whole route tree and doing a great job at it. Great ball skills. He’s just a good player. I like him.”
And Vikings coach Mike Zimmer can appreciate that selfless attitude.
“I think he’s excited about the possibilities as we move forward,” Zimmer said of Wallace. “I think we’ll continue to get better as the season goes on with all of it.”
So far, Wallace’s longest catch with the Vikings is 22 yards. Eventually, that should change.
“The sky is the limit, honestly,” he said of the offense. “I feel like we have a lot of explosive players on our offense and we’re as deep as any team in the league on our offense. To me, the sky is the limit.”
- Last year, it was clear Zimmer was leaning on Chad Greenway and Brian Robison to help transition the team to a new scheme. This offseason, Zimmer said, Greenway continued to buy into the changes asked of him, even as his role decreases. “Even though he is in his 10th year and last year was in his ninth year, we were trying to teach him a lot of different things that he hadn’t done before. I talked to him in the offseason. I showed him tape in the offseason about things he needed to get better at and he’s worked really hard at doing that, even though he’s a 10th-year guy. But that’s the kind of guy he is.”
- The Vikings are the least penalized team in the league with only 35, but cornerback Xavier Rhodes is second in the league with nine. “Xavier is going to be a big, physical corner and I’m not going to change the way he plays,” Zimmer said. “I keep telling him every day, ‘If you’re a power forward, you’ve got to be a power forward; you don’t want to be a point guard.’ We’ll keep working on trying to get him more technically sound, but we’re not going to back off from being aggressive and physical.”
- Last year, Jay Cutler took 38 sacks and the Bears as a team took 41. This year, they are on pace for only 21 and Zimmer credits Cutler for that. “Cutler is doing a nice job of moving in the pocket. I think they’re doing a good job with their protections as well,” Zimmer said. “He really is doing a great job of seeing pressure, avoiding it, biding some time and throwing the ball vertically down the field,” Zimmer said. “He’s got a cannon for an arm and he can be very, very accurate, especially when he is throwing a deep ball. It is a challenge. We’re going to have to make sure that we’re doing a good job the way we rush, the way we pressure and in our zones as well.”
- The Vikings had great success blitzing Matthew Stafford and the Lions last week, with six of their seven sacks coming on blitzes. This week might be a different story with the way Cutler is playing and Matt Forte’s adeptness as a receiver out of the backfield.