Mike Wallace has gone where few wide receivers go anymore. Deep.
It's early, and surely he cannot maintain his three-game pace the rest of the season.
If he does, they'll talk about him the way they speak of Don Currivan. No worry if that name is not familiar. Currivan holds the all-time record for average yards per catch in the NFL. He averaged 32.58 yards for the Boston Yanks in 1947 when he had a whopping 24 receptions, the minimum for such a record.
Wallace carries a 26.7-yard average these days, when the dink-and-dunk and 10-yard averages are more the norm. He led the NFL with a 19.4-yard average as a rookie.
Averages that high are rarely seen anymore. Yet Wallace and his coach believe he can keep it up after he became the first Steelers receiver to catch two scoring passes longer than 40 yards in a game since Louis Lipps in 1988. Only Lipps (19.5 in '88), Dwight Stone (20.3 in '91) and Plaxico Burress (19.9 in 2004) have had higher averages with the Steelers since 1982, of those who caught at least 20 passes.
"That's what I do," the speedy Wallace said of running deep routes. "I feel I can do that to anybody at any time. That's just how I feel about it. That's the way I go about it."
Wallace had touchdown catches of 46 and 41 yards from Charlie Batch in Tampa last Sunday, and another of 52 among his seven receptions. As the starting split end who replaced Santonio Holmes, he might be expected to catch more passes than seven in three games, but the way the Steelers have run the ball and with the back-and-forth at quarterback, the passing game has not been Big Ben-prolific early in the season.
That should change when Roethlisberger returns Monday for the fifth game, but right now the Steelers want to find a way to send Wallace deep against Baltimore to loosen that ravaging Ravens defense against the run.
"We have to go out and make a statement and let them know I can do this against y'all twice a year, not just once, not just against a team we never see," Wallace said. "I can do this against guys who know this is coming."
Bruce Arians, his coordinator, believes he can keep it up.
"I think it depends on the other guys," Arians said. "The other guys have to be able to attract some attention to where he can get down there.
"The thing that Michael has is the speed. If you can hold the ball long enough he's going to get open sooner or later down there if you can throw it far enough. Charlie did a good job of putting it for him last week, but yeah I think he can continue it."
Those "other guys" are Hines Ward and No. 3 receiver Antwaan Randle El, who are not fast. Rookies Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are, but they appear nowhere close to being ready to challenge for the No. 3 job.
Wallace will run deep Sunday on the Ravens, especially without injured all-world safety Ed Reed. If they double-cover Wallace, so much the better, Arians said.
"What we're trying to do right now is run the football good enough to make sure it's single high [coverage]. Now, if you're going to double-cover Mike, we're going to run the ball all day, 'cause that's some form of cover-2. That's the kind of wideout you want. You want a guy who's double-covered so you can run the football."
Coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday that he teases Wallace, calls him a "one-trick pony" because he wants to go deep all of the time. Yet he praised his desire and his work habits.
Wallace did not deny that he likes to run deep.
"First of all, I don't feel like they can stop me. That's what I do. I've been doing that my whole time playing football and I'm going to continue to do that. It helps me get open because guys back up.
"I know I can do a lot of things. I tell him all the time. So every time he calls me a one-trick pony, I say just give me the rock. I'll show you I have a lot of tricks."
Trai Essex did not practice again because of a sprained ankle that caused him to miss last Sunday's game. Doug Legursky will make his second consecutive start at right guard, and he may keep the job permanently even when Essex returns to health.
"I would not be surprised if he's in there for a long time," Arians said.
Legursky, signed by the Steelers in 2008 as an undrafted rookie from Marshall, made the team in '09 after spending his first season on the practice squad.
The Steelers list him as 6 feet 1, 323 pounds and Arians explained why he has been successful.
"Smart, tough guys, that's what you want in offensive linemen. Everybody says he's little because he's short, but he's 320, 315.
"He has great hand placement and knows how to play the game. He started all those games in college. He's just a good football player."
Backup nose tackle Chris Hoke did not practice again Thursday because of the second-degree MCL sprain in his right knee. If he cannot practice today, the Steelers will face a dilemma.
They want to dress six defensive linemen, but without Hoke they have only five with no true backup for Casey Hampton at the nose. With Hampton out in game two, the Steelers signed Steve McLendon off the practice squad and released quarterback Byron Leftwich for the weekend.
The Steelers can sign McLendon again, but they cannot release Leftwich, their only backup quarterback. They do not want to release another young player for fear another team would claim him.
The obvious answer would be to place quarterback Dennis Dixon on injured reserve. Placing him on IR when Roethlisberger returns was a possibility anyway, so why not just do it now? The Steelers had hoped to wait until next week, just in case one of their two quarterbacks on Sunday is injured. If they put Dixon on IR he cannot return until next season.
The Steelers use Isaac Redman when they need to pick up short yardage for a first down, but they have kept starter Rashard Mendenhall in at halfback when they get near the goal line.
In Tampa, Mendenhall ran through safety Sean Jones for a 3-yard touchdown.
"You'd like the guy who ran it down there to get the touchdowns," Arians said. "I always think of Barry Sanders, the greatest runner ever. You get it to the 3 and you take him out! He got it down there, now let him get it in. If he can't get it in, let's put somebody else in, but give him the first shot."