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Steelers' Brown climbing ladder of elite WRs

Numbers might better illustrate Antonio Brown's emergence than words.

The 22nd wide receiver taken in the 2010 draft has 18 third-down receptions, which ranks third in the NFL.

His 282 receiving yards on third down are also third-most in the league, and that statistic is another reason why Brown has staked his claim to the No. 2 standing on a deep and talented receiving corps.

"I always knew I was capable," Brown said. "It's a league of opportunities, and that's all it's about."

Taking advantage of his opportunities is not the only reason why Brown, who turned 23 in July, has earned the trust of Ben Roethlisberger. And when the Steelers quarterback called Brown a "gnat" earlier this week he meant it as the highest compliment.

"If you watch us during practice, he's constantly by my side," Roethlisberger said. "He's just always right there and it's good because he's coming to me asking 'OK, Ben on this play do you want me to do this, do you want me to do this?' And I think that's awesome because I know where he's going to be and that's one of the biggest reasons why I think we've been so successful on third down."

The Steelers could have never guessed that Brown would progress this quickly after they spent the 195th overall pick in the 2010 draft on him.

The Steelers had received the sixth-round selection as well as cornerback Bryant McFadden from the Arizona Cardinals in a draft-day draft. The Steelers had given Arizona the fifth-round pick they had received when they traded wide receiver Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets.

The trade looks like it might have been a fair one even if Brown and Holmes were the only two involved in the deal.

Holmes has more of a resume, as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would put it. But Brown has 154 more receiving yards and nine more receptions than Holmes through the first 10 games of the season.

Brown, who came to the Steelers by way of North Carolina Tech, a prep school, and Central Michigan University, hasn't just helped replace a former Super Bowl MVP (Holmes) in Pittsburgh.

The 5-10, 186-pounder appears to have supplanted one as well.

Brown started in place of Hines Ward in a 24-17 win at Cincinnati, and he appears to have moved ahead of the team's all-time leading receiver even though Ward is still listed as a starter on the Steelers' depth chart.

"He is improving in all areas," Tomlin said of Brown, "in route-running, coverage recognition, being quarterback friendly and just an overall understanding of the game and how he fits in the big picture. That's what we expect of all second-year men, to grow by leaps and bounds in all areas and he has done that to this point."

Brown gave a glimpse of what was to come last January when he made spectacular and timely catches in playoff wins over the Ravens and Jets.

Now, he is on a pace for his first 1,000-yard season by exploiting secondaries that pay too much attention to Steelers No. 1 wide receiver Mike Wallace.

"When you get single coverage and a guy that's as talented as he is, with body control, with his hands, he's got the speed to run deep... He just has a lot of tools (and) he puts in the extra work," Roethlisberger said.

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