High-flying Steelers WR Mike Wallace slowing down
Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace was already thinking about his touchdown dance when the pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped out of the sky toward Wallace's waiting hands.
Clank. The ball smacked off Wallace's hands and fell harmlessly to the ground.
No biggie. Twice more during last week's 13-9 win over Kansas City, Roethlisberger chucked it deep to one of the NFL's emerging big-play receivers. And twice more the Steelers missed, turning what could have been a rout into a game that wasn't decided until the final seconds.
Wallace offered no excuses for the uncharacteristic drops even as they extended a monthlong slide in which his eye-popping numbers have turned ordinary.
''They're just plays I usually make,'' said Wallace, who had a season-low two receptions for 17 yards against the Chiefs. ''I just got a little bit overly excited for that game. I've just got to come back down, take a step back.''
Just not too far back.
Wallace half-jokingly predicted a record 2,000-yard season during training camp. For the first seven games of the season, he appeared to have a shot, averaging 104 yards a contest and setting a team record with a 95-yard touchdown against the Cardinals.
The problem with playing at that level is opponents take notice. Getting behind the defense isn't quite so easy when you're being double-teamed on just about every play as Wallace is these days.
All that attention has forced one of the league's fastest players to throttle down. Wallace is averaging a pedestrian 11.0 yards per catch over the last four games with just one touchdown. He isn't frustrated - it's hard to be when your team is winning - yet he knows who coach Mike Tomlin is referring to when he says his receivers need to make ''more competitive catches.''
''If he's saying it, there can only be one person he's talking to,'' Wallace said.
Wallace understands his strength is his speed. His hands still need some work, though they're getting better. After making a fingertip grab of a pass from Roethlisberger earlier this season, Wallace made it a point to show his quarterback he didn't try to use his palms.
It drew a good laugh, proof of the rapport the two have developed over the last three seasons. Roethlisberger doesn't view Wallace's downturn as proof defenses have figured him out, though he believes Wallace may be pressing just a bit.
''I try to tell Mike to let the big games come to him,'' Roethlisberger said. ''Those 100-yard games are going to come.''
They came with regularity early in the season. Wallace had at least 107 yards receiving in each of the first three games. He has just one since, though Wallace knows he would easily have eclipsed the mark against the Chiefs if not for the drops.
''Sometimes it's kind of hard when you know you had a touchdown and you drop it, you're like, `Dang, I should have had that one,''' he said. ''I've dropped a ball before and come back and made a great catch the next time ... but it can get in your head a little bit.''
He insists he's moved on and points out one of the reasons he's not being targeted as much is because of the emergence of Antonio Brown, who already has 48 receptions this season - second to Wallace's team-leading 55 - and is becoming Roethlisberger's go-to guy.
More than a third (17) of Brown's receptions have turned third downs into first downs as he's exploited coverages that focus on Wallace's side of the field to protect against the big play.
''We have guys making plays despite me not getting the ball,'' Wallace said. ''That's fine with me.''
Good, because the Steelers tend not to keep prima donna receivers around.
Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes took their talents and their headaches elsewhere after successful runs in Pittsburgh. And for all of Wallace's gifts, the Steelers have unprecedented depth at the position from fellow young speedsters Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Hines Ward.
That group doesn't include tight ends Heath Miller or Weslye Saunders, who grabbed the first touchdown of his career against the Chiefs.
While allowing having lots of options is ''a good problem to have'' Roethlisberger isn't concerned about anybody's numbers this time of year as the defending AFC champions battle for a playoff spot.
''I'll spread it around as much as I can but I tell those guys, `Listen, it's about winning,''' he said. ''This part of the year isn't about making receivers happy catching balls, it's about winning football games. That's all that matters.''
That's all that matters to Wallace, too. He knows he can do a better job of going to get the ball rather than waiting for Roethlisberger to put it in the perfect spot. He's bragged frequently about the 40-inch vertical leap he showed off at the NFL combine three years ago. It might be time to put those springs to work. The rest of the receiving corps too.
''We need to make every catch that comes our way,'' Wallace said. ''Open, not open, double-teamed, we need to catch the ball.''