OWINGS MILLS — 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."