Steelers' Wallace becoming draft-day steal
He leads the Steelers in yards per catch and has as many touchdown receptions as John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes had in their first seasons combined.
To grasp how high Mike Wallace has set the bar just 14 games into his NFL career, consider quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's assessment of the rookie wideout's play last Sunday.
After Wallace caught a pair of touchdown passes in the Steelers' 37-36 win over the Green Bay Packers, Roethlisberger said, "You have to understand, Mike just had an OK game."
Fortunately for the Steelers, the same can't be said of the season Wallace is having.
He has caught 35 passes for 609 yards and five touchdowns, and the six-foot, 199-pounder is averaging almost 18 yards per catch.
The one thing that may be more impressive than the speed Wallace has flashed — Roethlisberger said he is still trying to adjust to it — is his timing.
Wallace's 19-yard touchdown catch on the final play of the game against the Packers may have saved the Steelers' season. On a larger scale, he has stepped seamlessly into the role of the No. 3 wide receiver that Nate Washington filled before signing with the Tennessee Titans last March.
What is also notable about his emergence: Wallace is the first Steeler who is not a specialist to make an impact as a rookie since Mike Tomlin took over as coach in 2007.
"His production for a rookie is way beyond what I thought it would be," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said.
"From the second he got here, he's very mature football-wise, and you can see how he's played since the first game of the season," added Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall.
It may be premature to say the Steelers got a steal when they took Wallace in the third round of the NFL Draft last April.
There is, however, mounting evidence that some kind of theft occurred when the Steelers grabbed Wallace with the 84th overall pick in the draft.
Of the 15 wide receivers taken in the first three rounds of the draft, 10 were selected ahead of Wallace, even though he led the SEC in yards per catch his final two seasons and ran a blistering 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine last February.
"I never had any doubt that once I got my opportunity I was going to make the most of it," Wallace said.
He had a similar belief in his abilities while at Ole Miss.
His position coach found that out one game when Wallace came to the sidelines and groused about getting disrespected.
"I'm thinking they're poking him in the eye or punching him in the stomach or something," said Ole Miss wide receiver coach Ron Dickerson Jr. "He's talking about because they're (only) playing him eight yards off (the line of scrimmage). It wasn't an arrogant Mike saying that. It was just Mike confident in what he could do."
He is not the only one who feels that way.
Roethlisberger has come to expect so much from Wallace that he does anything but treat him with kid gloves.
Wallace found that out a couple of plays before his game-winning catch last Sunday, which evoked memories of Holmes' one-for-the-ages grab at the end of Super Bowl XLIII.
Roethlisberger chided the rookie for not going all out on a pass pattern even though Wallace had sustained a laceration on his right knee earlier in the game.
Roethlisberger got the desired response he wanted when Wallace snared his last-second pass in the left side of the end zone before falling out of bounds.
The gash on his knee, which required three stitches to close, may limit Wallace in practice this week. But he said he will be fine for the game Sunday against the visiting Ravens.
And Roethlisberger expects him to be better than just OK as Wallace gets more experience.
"He's going to continue to improve and grow," Roethlisberger said. "The sky's the limit for him."