Brown embraces expanded role in Steelers' offense
When Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton arrives at training camp next month, he won't need to ask anyone where to go, what to do or how to comport himself as an NFL rookie.
Antonio Brown plans to tell him even before the third-round draft pick asks.
“We'll do a good job of getting him in and getting him settled. I think I'll be a great guy to facilitate that, as soon as he gets here — make sure he learns, understands the opportunity that's here in front of him, understands the vision of the group,” Brown said. “And that he knows what we're trying to do here, what we set out to do in 2013.”
Taking a rookie by the figurative hand might be expected of a player such as Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark or Larry Foote, one who has been with the Steelers during multiple Super Bowl seasons.
But the 26-year-old Brown has only three seasons of experience, and this year will be his first as the unofficial No. 1 receiver, a role held the past few seasons by Mike Wallace. There are more experienced receivers on the team, namely Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery, but Brown appears to be embracing his new status in a take-charge way.
“That's my role around here —guys come in, walk them around, let them know what we stand for and what is the standard, show them how we work and go about things,” Brown said.
Asked to further explain what the task means, Brown said, “Just be a leader. Be the guy the guys look to and count on, and continue to come out here and set the standard. Just be an example.”
Brown won't say that leadership was a missing quality last season during what he said was a “below the line” performance by the wide receivers. But he understands that Wallace couldn't have performed any meet-and-greet functions during training camp because he held out after not getting a new contract.
Wallace's numbers subsequently dropped from the previous season — from 72 catches to 64 and from 1,193 yards to 836 — though some of that fall-off might have resulted from the change in offensive coordinators from Bruce Arians to Todd Haley.
Is Brown planning to be a more effective leader than Wallace was?
“I'm just focusing on myself — we're not looking to the past or last year or who came and who left,” Brown said. “All we can control is right now, and what we have right now. And the people who are here are going to do the best to lead and do what we have to do.”
What the receivers have to do, they agree, is be more productive than a season ago, when the passing game dropped off late in the year after Ben Roethlisberger injured his shoulder and chest and missed three games.
While Roethlisberger's throwing was visibly affected after he returned, the wide receivers say their play fell off, too.
And, at least on paper, the current group was looking to be inferior in talent to last season's because Wallace left for a $60 million contract in Miami and the main two additions are rookies, Wheaton and Justin Brown.
“Definitely underachieved,” Brown said. “Too many turnovers, balls on the ground. I think a lot of the turnovers came from our (wide receivers) room, a couple of dropped passes. It definitely was below the line. This year, we're out to get better as a group and get it back to a good level.”
That would be the level of 2011, when Wallace and Brown were 1,000-yard receivers, tight end Heath Miller caught 51 passes and even Hines Ward, eased out of the offense by season's end, made 46 catches.
Last season, Miller was the leading receiver with 71 catches, and he came within 21 yards of being the receiving yardage leader, almost unheard of for a Steelers tight end.
“You go through an 8-8 season, and there are going to be a lot of disconnects,” said Emmanuel Sanders, who's expected to replace Wallace as a starter. “Right now, we're trying to stop that from happening. We're trying to get a lot of team chemistry, and we're just focused on the future.”
Cotchery said “we could have been a lot better last year.”
“We have to make plays,” Cotchery said. “When it comes down to it, when the ball is in the air, it has to be ours or nobody else's. We expect it to be ours. When we make those plays, it creates momentum, yardage and touchdowns and we can go from there. Early on in the year, we were making those plays, and it just dropped off. We just have to get back to it.”
Brown can see a difference in how the players are grasping Haley's offense during the spring practices.
“I'm loving everything we're doing,” he said. “We're doing some great things right now. ... I think we're a lot further along than we were last year.”