Steelers' Brown continues to prove worth as team's top wide receiver
Antonio Brown was the Steelers' No. 2 receiver last season. Now, he's No. 1 in the NFL.
Brown, a player ascending on a team that's been descending, doesn't lead the league in catches, yards, yards per catch, touchdowns or yards per game.
Put all of his numbers together — 41 catches on 53 targets, 498 yards, averages of 12.1 per catch and 99.6 per game — and he easily leads Pro Football Focus' wide receiver efficiency rankings. His overall ranking of 13.5 is well ahead of Chicago's Brandon Marshall (11.5).
Brown is surpassing all of his previous three seasons as well as the numbers being put up by his predecessor Mike Wallace, who signed a $60 million deal with Miami but is the NFL's third-to-last ranked receiver at No. 104. Wallace has 22 catches for 281 yards and a touchdown.
“He's our No. 1 guy,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said Thursday. “When Mike left, he knew he had an opportunity to step into that role. He's embraced it, he's worked hard and he's making plays. That's tough to do when you're ‘the' guy because that's the guy that generally sees double coverage.”
Teammates say Brown isn't taking any downs off, is running his routes with greater precision than before and staying on the same page with Ben Roethlisberger, who — thanks in part to Brown — has thrown for 1,053 yards in his past three games.
“Whatever he calls, I'm going to do the best job of running it, whether it's long or short, give every detail on that route and, hopefully, that can get me downfield,” said Brown.
At his current pace, Brown not only would easily surpass his previous career highs of 69 catches for 1,108 yards in 2011, he would fly past Hines Ward's team record of 112 catches in a season.
“Right now, me and Ben are on the same page, and the receivers as a whole are doing a good job of working together,” Brown said. “I'm doing a good job of preparing every week and being assignment-sound and being in areas Ben wants me to be in.”
Brown had 66 catches for 787 yards and five touchdowns last season when he missed three games and was bothered for the second half of the season by an ankle injury.
That's why, when asked what has transformed Brown from a good receiver into an elite one, teammate Jerricho Cotchery said, “Nothing.”
“Last year, I feel like he was on the same pace early on in the year to have 100 catches, but he went down with an ankle injury that he battled through the entire year,” Cotchery said, pointing to Brown's 36 catches in his first five games in 2012. “I feel like there would have been a lot more consistency in the offense if he were healthy last year, but he wasn't. At this point he's healthy, and we're reaping the benefits of it.”
Brown apparently went to Haley and asked for a greater role in the offense after he had six catches for 57 yards during a 20-10 loss in Cincinnati on Sept. 16, though both deny there was any confrontation. The following week, Brown made nine catches for 196 yards against the Bears.
“He's lightning fast, lightning quick, (has) quick hands, very good hands and (is) very good after the catch,” Haley said. “You can throw him a short one, and he can run long.”
And take it all the way to No. 1 in the league.