Interesting matchup at Heinz Field Sunday in the afternoon game of the day in the NFL, and I don't just mean the Steelers and Patriots. I mean the Steelers ascending wide receiver, Mike Wallace, versus the Patriots' descending cornerback, Devin McCourty.
McCourty was one of my two All-Pro corners last year, finally filling the void left by Asante Samuel when he left for Philadelphia in free agency in 2008. He was a durable shutdown corner; according to ProFootballFocus, quarterbacks had a paltry 61.1 rating throwing against McCourty in 2010 -- that's like playing against Kyle Boller every week. But that passer rating has skied to 123.6 this year. He may think he's the same confident player he was last year, but he's not playing like it.
It's not only Wallace who McCourty and the Patriots will have to worry about Sunday. A 2010 sixth-round pick from Central Michigan, Antonio Brown, gives Ben Roethlisberger a second deep threat opposite Wallace. Together, they're averaging 18 yards per catch. Suddenly, the Steelers aren't your father's Steelers. They're a team happier to throw it deep than to let Rashard Mendenhall bang it into the line.
What I've noticed watching the first half of this season is Ben Roethlisberger is not just playing scorched-earth football. He's happy to have the sub-4.4 Wallace and Brown take the top off the defense and let them run under his high-arcing rainbows. Roethlisberger is working hard to master the touch pass and the back-shoulder pass to his speed guys. I asked Wallace about that, and he bit aggressively, like he was waiting to talk about it.
"I catch 100 balls a day, and they're all with a purpose,'' Wallace said. "I'm working on the precision of my routes every day and getting better. We're getting to the point where we really know each other, and I can read what he wants me to do on a route. It's not like he has to say in the huddle, 'Mike, if the DB's gonna overrun the route here, just hold up and I'll throw it short.' I know when to adjust what I'm doing. That doesn't just happen. We throw every day. We grind it.''
That's what has made Wallace such a dangerous player. He' made enough deep plays to have an AFC-best 20.3-yards-per-catch average. But as Roethlisberger will tell you, he's not a one-trick pony. He's looked like the complete receiver he itches to be this season. And these are the games when the great ones show up big. Even if McCourty is slumping, Wallace has to know the Patriots corner and fellow starter Kyle Arrington will show Pittsburgh different cover designs Sunday -- bumping one snap, playing seven yards off the next. And everything in between.
One more thing about Wallace. I remember watching him in Steeler camp in 2010, and he and a couple of the young receivers were the last players left on the field, 20 minutes after practice broke. I've admired his drive and asked him about it when we spoke.
"I don't play football just to play,'' he said. "I want to be remembered for a long time after I'm gone.''
Well, then, these are the kinds of settings -- with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady on the other sideline -- where great players show up. I'd be surprised if Wallace didn't come up big against New England.
Interesting talk with Colts vice chairman Bill Polian, 253-yard man DeMarco Murray of the Cowboys and longtime NFL beat man Bob McGinn on the "NFL Podcast with Peter King'' this week.
Polian on Jim Caldwell's future with the Colts: "I've seen nothing that would indicate that Jim Caldwell is not a good head coach."
Polian on Peyton Manning playing this year: "We would like, and I think he would like, to get back out there as soon as he can and start performing again ... That might not mean playing in games. It could very well mean practicing. But as I say, that's a long, long way off and it's not a decision that we've even contemplated making.''
Polian on Manning's contract: "No, I think we're all very realistic about the long-term future of his [Manning's] career. And the contract, in many ways, is reflective of that. ... And we think that we built a contract going forward that is reasonable given his contribution to this club. And assuming that he's able to play; if he's not able to play or there's some diminution of his ability to play, we'll deal with that at the appropriate time. And all parties involved are well aware of that.''
Polian on the addition of Jim Tressel as a gameday replay analyst: "We were thrilled, obviously, to be able to add a person of Jim Tressel's stature and acumen to our staff, albeit simply in this game day capacity, in this advisory capacity. But it had absolutely nothing to do with [our] feeling that we were going to create some sort of position so Jim Tressel could perhaps become a head coach in this league at some point in time. That never entered our minds. This was at Jim Caldwell's suggestion.''