PITTSBURGH – When Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger steps into the pocket and looks downfield for Mike Wallace, he's knows one thing for certain.
He's not overthrowing one of the NFL's fastest players, unless he somehow launches the ball 10 yards beyond the end zone.
"Can't do it," Roethlisberger said.
When the Steelers drafted Wallace in 2009, they knew they were getting a fast receiver. They had no idea the third-round draft pick from Mississippi might find himself being compared to receivers such as Hall of Famers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann so early in his career.
In two seasons, Wallace has 16 touchdown catches, including 10 in his first year as a starter this season. By comparison, Stallworth and Swann both had career highs of 11 touchdowns.
Wallace also averages 21 yards every time he catches a pass, and 12.7 yards whenever a pass is thrown his way — whether he catches it or not. His seven 100-yard games tied Stallworth for the most in a Steelers season. He also ranked second in the league with 17 catches of 25 yards or more.
No matter who the Steelers play in the NFL divisional playoffs next week, defending Wallace will be a priority for their opponent.
"Last year, I was just happy to catch the ball, just trying to make sure I didn't drop the ball," Wallace said. "This year, I wanted to score more, try to get up the field a lot faster when I catch the ball."
Wallace was mostly the Steelers' No. 3 receiver last season, playing often in extra-receiver sets. Yet, he averaged a league-high 19.4 yards per catch. This season, he was topped only by the Eagles' DeSean Jackson at 22.5.
Wallace won't say he's the fastest wide receiver in the league. But he also can't name anyone faster.
"If he had the amount of catches (the NFL leaders had), he'd have a ridiculous amount of yards," Roethlisberger said. "But you know what? Maybe that gives him the motivation to improve and try to get up there."
Wallace's ongoing development has lessened the impact of former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes' offseason trade to the Jets. The Steelers have a better record (12-4) than they did last year (9-7), and part of that is the chemistry that Wallace and Roethlisberger have developed in an increasingly uptempo offense.
Roethlisberger constantly kids Wallace. He calls him Burn. Not because of his speed, but because of his first name, which is Burnell. At the same time, Roethlisberger is pushing Wallace to get better, to add this trick or this move or this skill to his resume.
"To be doing all the things he's doing at a young age is amazing," said wide receiver Hines Ward, who also works extensively with Wallace. "But people don't always see the stuff he's getting better on — the route running, the getting in and out of cuts. He can push a guy now and get separation. The more he develops, the better he's going to make everybody because it's going to be very hard to defend him. You're going to have to worry about negating his big-play ability, and that's going to open up plays for other guys."
On Sunday, the Steelers planned to target Wallace in man-to-man coverage to start their game in Cleveland, regardless of field position. Roethlisberger delivered a perfectly placed pass to an open Wallace for a 56-yard touchdown, and the Steelers went on to win 41-9, secure the AFC North title and a first-round playoff bye.
The game before, Wallace had a 43-yard catch for Pittsburgh's first touchdown in a 27-3 victory over Carolina. Five of Wallace's touchdowns this season are for 40 yards or longer, and he and Roethlisberger already have connected eight times in two seasons on scoring pass plays of such length.
Wallace's growing confidence is evident, too.
Asked about going against Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis last month, Wallace said, "I don't care about nobody. He's just another guy. He's a really good player, but I'm a real good player myself."
Wallace's rapid improvement, and the addition of rookies Emmanuel Sanders (28 catches for 376 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Antonio Brown (16 catches, 167 yards), provide an element of speed the Steelers haven't always had.
"We understand that this is the playoffs, and we expect things to happen pretty quickly there," Wallace said. "I just want Ben to know I'll be ready for him when he needs me. I'll make the big plays, just like I did during the regular season. It doesn't matter that I haven't been in the playoffs before."