Steelers' Wallace digging deep for more tricks
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FORT WORTH, Texas -- Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, always looking for a distinct edge in sharpening his players, began teasing wide receiver Mike Wallace with the nickname "One Trick" in the summer.
As in "one-trick pony."
As in, all the guy does is sprint straight routes down the field, boom or bust.
Wallace grasped the humor at the time, but he also aimed to change it.
"I don't like it," was his comeback then. "Unleash me. That's all."
The unleashed Wallace -- given a greater role after the Santonio Holmes trade -- raised his reception total from 39 as a rookie to 60 this season, his yards from 756 to 1,257, his touchdowns from 6 to 10. And yes, he maintained that one trick, too, with 26 catches of 20-plus yards, most in the NFL.
"OK, now I can call him 'One-and-a-half-trick pony," Tomlin said with a broad smile Wednesday morning before the Steelers practiced on the campus of Texas Christian University. "He's still that rare player who can take the top off of the coverage, but he's shown he wants to be a great all-around player. He's going to have a chance to do that now."
If that sounds as if Tomlin is not done sending messages, consider the message received.
"I don't like it," Wallace said about a half-hour later when asked of the extra half added to his bag of tricks. "But I know it's all motivation. I just try to go out every week and prove him wrong. Then, maybe he'll have to come up with a new nickname for me. I've scored touchdowns and made plays all different ways ever since he's said it, and he's still calling me the same name. I don't think it's going to change until next year."
The playoffs, though, have seen even that one trick vanish: Mostly double-covered by the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, Wallace has caught only four passes for 26 yards, and 20 of those yards came on one catch.
Any guesses as to how the Green Bay Packers might approach Wallace in Super Bowl XLV Sunday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington?
Not so fast.
Dom Capers, the Packers' defensive coordinator, uses a 3-4 scheme like the Steelers, and he tends not to engage in many nickel packages. Moreover, cornerback Sam Shields has spoken openly this week of being the man to shadow Wallace, saying Tuesday, "I'm a fast guy, and he's a fast guy. It's going to be a big challenge, and I can't wait."
Neither can Wallace, it is safe to say, if that is the Packers' approach.
"We've been watching film, and they like to put their guys in one-on-one situations," Wallace said. "They have a lot of confidence in their guys, and rightfully so. I don't know. Hopefully, they will, but we'll see."
And can anyone in Green Bay's secondary keep up with Wallace?
"I don't know. We'll see on Sunday," he replied. "They say they do, but I don't think so."
Shields and the other corner, Tramon Williams, are fine athletes, but ...
"Ain't nobody got Wallace's speed," Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. "I mean nobody."
So, what will be the key to elevating Wallace's output, finally, in these playoffs?
The Steelers are of the mind that Wallace still has done a decent job of getting open, but the extra coverage has prompted quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to look elsewhere. That has allowed youngsters Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown to boost their profiles, as well as the continued involvement of Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller.
But Super Bowls are the time for big players to make big plays, not to serve as elaborate decoys. And Wallace seems to embrace that, recalling Steelers of the past who shined under the brightest lights such as Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Holmes.
"Those are big shoes," Wallace said. "I think about it all the time: If I can get that MVP, it means we won the game."
And what kind of play would bring that?
"If I could give you a 98-yard play in the Super Bowl, it's on."
In the same breath, he also seemed to accept that, if Green Bay really wants to take him out of the equation, his role would change.
"Hey, if I have to run down the field and take two guys with me, that's going to leave Ben all kinds of other options. But I'm not worried about that at all, and that's not how I'm going into this. I'll still make plays. I'll need three guys to stop me from making plays, not just two."
Might that be tough to take for someone used to producing?
"Sure, it is. The whole thing has been tough. When you've been used to going against one guy most of the time and now it's two, you have to do different things with your routes because you're trying to get away from two guys. But I'll attack them the same way I always attack: Use my speed. Run my routes as fast as I can, and I think I'll be fine."
"But you know what? It means I'm coming up. That's all. Just means more people are paying attention."
If that happens again, the rest sound ready to adjust.
"We know Mike's kind of depending on me and Antonio and Hines to get open," Sanders said. "When a guy's getting double-teamed, the responsibility falls on the other receivers. I know Mike has complete faith in me and Antonio, and we're going to do everything we can to open up the defense."
"There are two ways to beat it," veteran receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "You either make plays yourself, no matter the coverage, or have your compadres make some plays. Emmanuel's made plays. Antonio's made plays. They can take away one of us, but can they take away all of us?"
Perhaps not, which is why Miller suggested that a short-yardage adjustment might be in order.
"Mike's a big-play threat, and he's made huge plays throughout the season," Miller said. "But, in the playoffs, I think teams have made a point not to let us have that home run ball. When that happens, the underneath guys kind of have to go to work and get our yards maybe in 15- or 20-yard chunks."
Of course, Wallace is capable of those sized chunks, too, having learned from Ward to run better routes, to come back to Roethlisberger when he is scrambling and to become the more complete player Tomlin and the staff had hoped to see.
"I'm proud of that," Wallace said. "I used to just run fast all the time. He taught me how to slow things down a little sometimes. I owe a lot to Hines."
He also will have a ring to match Ward's two, if he and the Steelers are successful Sunday.
"Yeah, I'm geeked up! Can't wait!" Wallace said. "I'm ready to go out there right now and just enjoy it for myself and for my team. The biggest thing is coming away with seven trophies for the Steelers. I don't care what kind of numbers I end up on my own."
First Published February 3, 2011 12:00 am