Wallace's learning curve shouldn't be steep
A Mike Wallace-only minicamp rapidly prepared the Steelers' wide receiver to get up and running for his first practice since last season.
Despite Wallace's absence from training camp in Latrobe and every other team activity since the end of last season, his teammates expect Wallace to run with the starters Sunday night in Denver.
“I think he'll be in there quite a bit,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Monday.
The reasoning is simple. No playbook study or video-watching session can prepare a player to run as fast as Wallace does — he was timed at 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash in college — and it's obvious the Steelers' offense is much less scary without Wallace outrunning defenders downfield.
“It's the one thing we were missing,” safety Ryan Clark said.
Wallace practiced Monday for the first time since ending a 35-day holdout that began when he didn't get a new contract by the start of camp July 25. According to Wallace, he rotated in with the other receivers, much like he would any other practice.
The big question as Wallace sat out was how long it would take him to get comfortable with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley's playbook, one that his teammates say is substantially different from that of former coordinator Bruce Arians'.
Rather than wait out his teammates' three-day weekend break that started after their preseason game against Carolina on Thursday, Wallace — who reported last Tuesday — showed up at the Steelers' practice complex Friday and Saturday to get a condensed version.
The sessions were so long and intense, Wallace said, that wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery allowed him only a few minutes off for lunch before they resumed work. Wallace gave Montgomery only Sunday off so the assistant could have one day with his wife and children.
“He gave me a big jump with that,” Wallace said. “Coach is always a good person about that. He loves working anyway. He didn't want me to really go home (over the weekend), so he was in there, keeping me. … Those days, those hours really helped me and I appreciate that a lot.”
Wallace picked up so much during the cram course, he was comfortable with all of the play calls Monday. Wallace and Montgomery also talked periodically while Wallace trained in Orlando this summer with conditioning expert Tom Shaw.
“It's really the terminology (that's different),” Wallace said. “There's not too much (different) as far as the plays. Once you're in the NFL, I think all that stuff starts to run together. Of course, you have a couple of different plays, but I feel like the terminology is the main thing. I like where I am right now.”
Then Wallace smiled and said, “His (Montgomery's) job depends on me, so he wants me to be up to speed.”
The Steelers' season might depend on whether Wallace can return to being the big-play receiver he was for most of his first three NFL campaigns, when he averaged at least 16.6 yards per catch every season. But while Wallace started last season with three consecutive 100-yard receiving games, he had only one more the rest of the season.
Wallace will feel more comfortable if he can practice Wednesday — after the game plan is installed — with as little trouble as he experienced Monday. He doesn't think Haley will hold back any of his playbook just because Wallace wasn't there in Latrobe learning it with the other receivers.
“I've got to know everything. I can't just run down the field,” Wallace said. “I have to be able to do short (routes), long, and it was a good day for me. … I don't think they have to hold back too much.”
Roethlisberger said how much Wallace plays Sunday depends on several variables.
“How's he practicing? How's his wind? What's the call? I'm sure there are plays (he'll miss), he's not going to be able to play every play — no one does,” Roethlisberger said.
Wallace has until Sunday to work out a new multiyear contract. Even if he doesn't sign, the Steelers could designate him as their franchise player and bring back yet again next season. For now, he insists that isn't on his mind.
“It's fun being with these guys,” Wallace said. “I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.”
Even if the one place he wants to be was the one place he couldn't be found until last week.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.