DAVIE, Florida — Facing a ball machine at point-blank range Tuesday, Mike Wallace stood on one leg, rose onto his tiptoes and stretched to grab pass after pass with one hand, making the acrobatic look routine.
For Wallace, the drill wasn't anything out of the ordinary— he does it after every Miami Dolphins practice. But he'd love to make a sensational catch or two Sunday, when he plays against his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It's going to be exciting," Wallace said. "I don't want to get caught up in too much hype about a personal battle with these guys, because it's not really about that. It's about moving forward. These guys stand in the way of our playoff hopes. They're another team in the way that has to go down."
Wallace spent his first four NFL seasons with the Steelers and helped them reach a Super Bowl, then became a free agent and signed a $60 million, five-year deal with the Dolphins. Pittsburgh is 5-7 without him, Miami is 6-6 with him, and both teams are scrambling for the AFC's final wild-card berth.
"I love Mike," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. "I won't love Mike on Sunday. He stands in the way of what we're trying to do."
The Steelers deemed Wallace too expensive to keep. He held out during their 2012 training camp in an unsuccessful bid for a long-term extension, and while he has said only nice things about his former team since joining the Dolphins, he expects a cool reception from fans when he returns to Heinz Field.
"I already know how my welcome is going to be. It's not going to be too pretty," he said. "I'm on a new team. I'm pretty sure they're not going to like that very much. But we all have to move on. ...
"Everything happens for a reason. This is still a business. You can't get caught up in too many feelings."
The productivity of the speedy Dolphins newcomer was sub-par through the first half of this season, in part because Ryan Tannehill repeatedly underthrew Wallace when he was open deep. But in the last couple of weeks, Miami's investment in the former Pro Bowl receiver has started to pay big dividends.
Wallace had catches of 57 and 53 yards on Nov. 24 against Cincinnati, and last week he made seven receptions against the Jets and turned a short pass into a 28-yard touchdown.
After Miami's win at New York, Wallace proclaimed himself anew "a great player."
"I never lost my swagger," he said.
Perhaps, but several times this season he expressed disappointment about his output. With 56 catches, he's on pace for a career-high total. But among NFL receivers, his 743 yards rank 26th, his 13.3 yards per catch are tied for 48th, and his three touchdowns are tied for 60th.
Wallace has yet to click consistently with Tannehill, who acknowledged a need to improve his accuracy on long passes. The second-year pro is 8 for 37 (22 percent) on attempts covering more than 20 yards; by comparison, Seattle second-year pro Russell Wilson is 19 for 36 (53 percent).
Another problem is that despite all that time with the ball machine, Wallace ranks among the league leaders in dropped passes. Most costly was a 60-yard desperation throw that went off his hands at the goal line in the final seconds of a 20-16 loss against Cincinnati.
Miami's coaches have repeatedly defended Wallace's play, saying his speed has achieved the intended effect of stretching defenses.
"He has really made a difference in how people play us, and has allowed opportunities for other people," offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. "People definitely have a concern that his speed can be damaging, and so they'll maybe play two people in his direction to try and have someone over the top sometimes."
Even so, the Dolphins rank only 26th in total yards, one spot higher than the pre-Wallace 2012 team.
Pittsburgh ranks 15th, six spots higher than last year with Wallace. Jerricho Cotchery, whose base salary is $1.5 million, has seven touchdown receptions and a better yards-per-catch average (14.3) than Wallace. Antonio Brown, who signed a $42 million, six-year extension during Wallace's 2012 holdout, leads the NFL with 85 catches.
In August, Wallace said he wanted to be the one leading the league. That won't happen, but his statistics are on the upswing just in time for the Dolphins' playoff push.
"I'm feeling more comfortable every week in the offense," he said. "It's time to hit my stride. No more warming up. It's time to go. It's December. You've got to make plays now. You don't have time to wait."
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
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