Darting upfield with his cleats kicking up grass behind him, Pittsburgh Steelers star wide receiver Mike Wallace accelerates past cornerbacks as if they're stuck in cement. One of the fastest players in the league with high 4.2 speed in the 40-yard dash, Wallace leads the NFL with six catches of at least 40 yards. A year removed from a breakthrough season where he caught 60 passes for 1,275 yards and 10 touchdowns, Wallace remains one of the most dangerous deep threats in the game. With 43 catches for 800 yards and five touchdowns through eight games, Wallace has more receiving yards midway through the season than any player in franchise history after eclipsing two of the best seasons for John Stallworth and Yancey Thigpen.
On pace for 86 catches for 1,600 yards and 10 touchdowns, Wallace isn't intimidated by the presence of Baltimore Ravens All-Pro free safety Ed Reed.
"They have a great safety in the middle of the field," Wallace said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "When you're playing with a guy like that, you have to kind of be smart about it. I feel like I can still get deep on anybody. I don't care who's back there.
"So, it's just a matter of opportunities. I've got to think sometimes when the guys get back there, they just don't throw it, but there's nothing they can do to stop me from getting deep if I have an opportunity."
Ranked second in the NFL behind Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith with an 18.6 average per reception, the speedster commands a lot of respect and will likely force the Ravens to tilt their coverage in his direction.
Wallace has at least 70 receiving yards in his past 13 regular-season games, the former Ole Miss standout posted six consecutive 100-yard receiving games to set a new franchise record.
"I think his speed, his ability to get up and down the field from Point A to Point B, his acceleration, is something you don't see every day in the NFL," Ravens cornerback Cary Williams said. "He's a definite deep threat, and I think his ability to run with the ball in his hands is just as equal a problem as his speed is.
"What we want to do is disrupt his timing with Ben Roethlisberger and throw those guys off. If we can do that, I think we'll have a great day. Wallace has had a huge impact this year. We want to get those guys off their game and hopefully get a win on Sunday."
The Ravens have the top-ranked defense in the league and the third-ranked pass defense, allowing only 174.1 passing yards per game with just five passing touchdowns surrendered.
Opposing quarterbacks have only passed for 1,389 yards, eight touchdowns and six interceptions on 53.8 percent accuracy for a cumulative 75.4 passer rating.
"Big strikes against us? We've got Ed Reed. That might be a problem," All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "I tell you what, man, we know the way the game comes down against them. It's no secret. We know the way they play. They know the way we play.
"We know they're going to try to get [Wallace] on a deep ball behind us. No secrets with us. Whether they try or not, we're prepared for it. Whatever they try, run the ball, whatever it is, we're packing our defense when we come to play."
Although Wallace is an accomplished receiver, Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said he believes that Steelers player Antonio Brown is the superior player.
Brown has caught 34 passes for 431 yards and is averaging 12.1 yards per punt return and 28.9 yards per kickoff return.
He's more versatile than Wallace, but he's not regarded as a better wideout. However, Brown did beat Webb for a long reception to set up the Steelers' game-winning score in their playoff win over Baltimore last January.
"Every time somebody asks me, they're always talking about Mike Wallace," Webb said. "But they have a guy in Antonio Brown, who's better in all aspects of the game: a great returner, a great wide receiver."
And Webb noted that the absence of veteran wide receiver Hines Ward hasn't hurt the Steelers' receiving corps.
"Yeah, very dangerous without Hines, I guess Hines slows them down," Webb said. "Nah, just playing. Hines makes those guys. He's molded those guys into him, the same attitude. We know we're going to have to come in with our ‘A' game, especially on their home field."
Wallace hauled in eight receptions for 107 yards against Baltimore in the first game, including a 26-yard reception.
Only the New England Patriots and the Ravens have prevented Wallace from catching a pass of 40 yards or longer this season.
The Ravens did an excellent job of containing Wallace last year as he didn't score a touchdown and was held to less than 25 yards in two of the three games.
"Every single week before the game, I visualize going deep or making big plays," Wallace said. "I consider myself a big playmaker."
In just 2 ½ seasons, Wallace has caught 142 passes for 2,813 yards and 21 touchdowns with an average of 19.8 yards per reception.
"Mike was a great pick up for them, out of Ole Miss," coach John Harbaugh said. "He's played better, I think beyond expectations, if you look at it. He's fast, he's a route-runner, he's got good hands. He's a game breaker-type guy."
They've made him a major priority in their defensive game plan.
And the Ravens are wary of the Steelers' ability to stretch the field with Wallace regarded as the primary downfield target.
"They've got a bunch of guys that can all run," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "They can all fly. They run great routes. They can take the top off the defense. We've got our hands full."
Ravens notebook: Kick coverage in need of improvement
Twice isn't an aberration.
The Baltimore Ravens' special teams have now allowed two returns for touchdowns this season, ranking last in the NFL in kickoff coverage with opposing returners averaging 35.0 yards per return.
That includes Arizona Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson's electrifying 82-yard punt return for a touchdown last Sunday where he busted through five arm tackle attempts.
And the Ravens allowed New York Jets reserve running back Joe McKnight to set a franchise record with a 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against them earlier this season.
The common thread to both returns: missed tackle attempts, a lack of lane discipline and players simply getting blocked.
"When you view it, you're giving up two touchdowns," special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. "That's never acceptable. It's certainly not acceptable now, nor will it be acceptable. So, we're aware of those issues and we're dealing with them."
Ravens safety Haruki Nakamura attributed the breakdowns against Peterson to his missed tackle attempt as well as players not remaining in their lanes.
The Ravens now rank 21st in the NFL in punt coverage, allowing 10.5 yards per punt return.
"There are a lot of things that go into punt coverage, and I think that particular play is a really good example of team punt coverage," Rosburg said. "A week ago, the same group of guys generally speaking were one of the top punt coverage units in the league. I think we were in the top five in the two most important categories. And then one play later, disaster.
"There were a number of factors that went into that play, and I really do appreciate the guys that stepped forward and were accountable and took responsibility. But it wasn't just them. It was a complete punt team breakdown, including the coach."
A first-round draft pick from LSU, Peterson is one of the most athletic rookies in the league.
"Credit Arizona, they have a dynamic, explosive returner and they picked him in the first round for a reason," Rosburg said. "We respected him, we understood him. We knew he was an explosive player and we still weren't able to execute that particular play. When you're dealing with an explosive player like that and you make mistakes, it's a bad day."
The task doesn't get easier this week for the Ravens' special teams against Pittsburgh Steelers return man Antonio Brown. He's averaging 12.1 yards per punt return and 28.9 yards per kickoff return.
"I'm confident that our guys are going to play better this week, because we have a similar challenge," Rosburg said. "That's the way it is in the NFL - you do or you do not, and we did not on that particular play. We did not play the play well, and it hurt us. It hurt us a lot."
GRUBBS DOING MORE: Left offensive guard Ben Grubbs practice for the second consecutive day on a limited basis, increasing his activity as he worked with the first-team offense during drills.
Grubbs has missed the past six games since suffering a right turf toe against the Steelers in the first game of the season and suffered a setback two weeks ago when his damaged toe got stepped on during practice. A five-time Pro Bowl center, Andre Gurode has been starting in Grubbs' place
"Any time you can get a player like Ben back, it's big because he played extremely well in the first game so we'll see," offensive coordinator Cameron said. "He'll probably be a game-time decision and we'll take Ben back at any point in time. Andre, really for a guy who has never played left guard in his entire career, it's been miraculous what he's done.
"He hasn't been perfect. He knows that, but it's been really good and he's given us a chance to win every game so I think you have to give him a lot of credit for doing something that he's never done before."
Meanwhile, All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata didn't practice for the second consecutive game due to a thigh injury. However, there's no concern from Ngata or team officials about his availability for Sunday night at this point.
Also not practicing: wide receiver Lee Evans (left ankle) and inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (hamstring, groin).
The following players were limited: wide receiver and kick returner David Reed (knee, ankle), center Matt Birk (neck), running back Anthony Allen (hamstring), cornerback Chykie Brown (knee) and cornerback Danny Gorrer (hamstring).
Reed said he banged up his knee during the game, hyperextending it slightly. He's also dealing with an ankle injury.
Reed ranks fourth in the league in kickoff return average with a 29.2 mark, but was frustrated with his last game.
"It was just bad, it was bad for me," Reed said. "I didn't do that good. I was not happy with my performance at all."
The Steelers made no changes to their injury report as starting linebackers James Harrison (broken orbital bone), LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) and James Farrior (calf) were all limited for the second consecutive game.
UNDERDOGS?: The Steelers have been installed as three-point favorites over the Ravens despite the Ravens' four-touchdown victory over Pittsburgh to start the season.
The Steelers have won six of their past seven games, and are on a four-game winning streak that includes an impressive win last week over the New England Patriots.
Ravens running back Ray Rice doesn't agree with the odds makers' opinion even though the home team is traditionally given three points, making this essentially a toss-up.
"The feeling is, I don't see us as the underdog," Rice said. "The feeling is, they're a divisional opponent, they're a rivalry opponent, and we know what this game means. If we win, we've swept them for the season.
"We don't have to worry about Pittsburgh anymore for the rest of the year. We control our own destiny. That underdog [label], coming out of this game, we know what it means. It's going to have that playoff-type atmosphere.
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