- Associated Press - Thursday, September 29, 2011

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Even if it might just be his greatest asset, Mike Wallace does little to help his own cause.

The Steelers third-year receiver just can’t help himself. To him, hey, “An apple is an apple. You know what I’m saying?”

Wallace tells anyone who asks he’s the fastest player in the NFL.

“I’ve always been feeling like that,” Wallace said, matter-of-factly. “I’m still feeling like that, and I don’t see anything changing.”

Opposing cornerbacks who have faced him won’t argue. After an electrifying five-catch, 144-yard performance in a 23-20 win in Indianapolis on Sunday that included a career-long 81-yard touchdown, Wallace is second in the NFL in receiving yards and tied for third in receptions.

The secret might be getting out on Wallace emerging as one of the league’s best receivers. And Wallace does little to keep his 4.2-speed quiet, either. The irony is that it’s the surprise factor that some say has helped Wallace run past so many defensive backs in his first three seasons as a pro.

“We know it because we play against him all the time,” said Pittsburgh cornerback Bryant McFadden, who concurred Wallace’s assertion he’s the fastest in the league. “A lot of (opposing) guys, I think they get into a situation where they see it on film and they say, ‘Oh, we play against fast guys all the time.’ No, not Mike Wallace fast. And they really don’t respect it like they should until 80 yards later … it’s a touchdown.

“He’s a tremendously super, super fast guy.”

Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said he scripts about five “home run” plays per game in an effort to take advantage of Wallace’s speed _ “and I don’t like to come home with any of them not being called,” he added.

Wallace led the NFL in yards per reception as a rookie and was second in the league in that category last season, when he had 60 receptions for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Dating back to the final three games of last season, Wallace has at least 100 receiving yards in six consecutive regular-season games. That’s a Steelers record, and Wallace can tie the NFL record with his seventh consecutive 100-yard receiving game 1 p.m. Sunday when Pittsburgh (2-1) plays at Houston (2-1).

Still, through it all, somehow Wallace seems to sneak up on opposing defenses _ before he runs right past them.

“I think he keeps surprising people that don’t see him a lot,” Arians said. “Last year, as the games went on, more and more people played deeper and deeper on him (later in the season).”

With new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Texans’ defense the Steelers will face Sunday prefers man-to-man coverage on receivers, perhaps giving Wallace another opportunity for a big play.

Wallace, who sustained a minor rib injury in the Colts game but is fully practicing this week and will play against the Texans, has 21 catches for 377 yards and two touchdowns through three games.

“I’ve always believed in myself; it was just I had to go through the draft process where it really hurt,” Wallace said of falling to the third round of the 2009 draft. “You don’t just become a baller overnight. I had two great teachers in (Santonio Holmes) and (Hines Ward) when I first got here, that really helped my development, helped me develop a little faster.

“I’m just learning how to play football.”

Indeed, Wallace didn’t take up the sport permanently until his junior year of high school growing up in New Orleans. “I’d rather go home after school and chill and watch TV than go to football practice,” Wallace said of the teenage version of himself.

But did you use your God-given speed and run track?

“Not until my senior year.”

Did you at least challenge other kids to playground races on a bet?

“Oh no, nobody wanted to bet me. They knew they’d never beat me. They knew what it was, even back then.”

Now, the entire NFL is beginning to learn, too.

And despite coach Mike Tomlin’s playful nickname for Wallace of “one-trick” _ a reference to the fact he can only go deep and is not yet a complete receiver _ the former Ole Miss standout is proving he is anything but.

“He doesn’t really call me that anymore,” Wallace said, smiling. “He knows I’ve got sick moves and stuff, so he knows what’s up.

“He’s just trying to keep me grounded, but he knows I’ve got a bag full of tricks. A whole bag.”

Someday, maybe Wallace can approach the longevity and sustained success his mentor, Ward, has. In his 14th NFL season, Ward is the league’s active leader among wide receivers in catches and yardage.

Wallace is a long way from the 966 career receptions and 11,819 yards Ward owns, but, as should come as no surprise, Wallace doesn’t shy away from shooting for big numbers.

Just last month at Latrobe, Pa., during Steelers training camp, Wallace said his goal for the season was 2,000 receiving yards.

That would establish a new NFL record, but Wallace repeatedly refused to back down from the prediction.

Don’t look now, but three games into the season, Wallace is on pace to do just that. Averaging 125.7 receiving yards per game through three contests, Wallace is on a pace to reach 2,010 yards by season’s end.

“Too bad we’ve got 13 more to go,” Wallace said in a rare moment of understated humility, his eyes wide and shaking his head at the challenge in front of him.

Arians isn’t quite counting Wallace out just yet.

“As long as he can stay healthy and keep playing,” he said, “I think he will continue to get his yards.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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