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Steelers' Brown maturing into elite wide receiver

| Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, 10:36 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Antonio Brown runs after a first-quarter catch against the Bengals on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013 at Heinz Field.

Antonio Brown has two games remaining in what might be the best statistical season by a Steelers wide receiver. No wonder he doesn't think he's close to being done yet.

Given he's only 25, Brown certainly doesn't believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime season, not when he's certain he isn't close to being in his prime.

“I probably need to be more productive, catch more balls,” Brown said. “I need to help us find ways to win more.”

The Steelers (6-8) are underachieving as a team, but Brown has done everything asked of him and more in his first season as their No. 1 receiver.

Maybe, coach Mike Tomlin said, it's because “In his mind, he's always been a No. 1 receiver, even when he was a No. 4.”

The Steelers might have made some questionable personnel decisions in recent seasons, but giving Brown a big-money contract — and allowing Mike Wallace to walk — after Brown had caught only two career touchdown passes wasn't one of them.

Brown is third in the NFL with 95 catches, trailing only Andre Johnson (99) of Houston and Pierre Garcon (96) of Washington. He is within five catches of joining Hines Ward and becoming only the second Steelers receiver to catch 100 passes in a season.

He is also third in the league with 1,307 yards — 91 yards behind Yancey Thigpen's 1997 club record of 1,398.

He could break that record Sunday when the Steelers play in Green Bay (7-6-1).

“But this Steelers team is (6-8) and that's more important than anything,” Brown said when asked about his statistics. “I've got to help us figure out how to win games, and that's where I am right now.”

It's obvious where coach Mike Tomlin thinks Brown is, and that's in the upper tier of NFL skill position players.

Yet asked about Brown's breakout season, Tomlin compared him not to Ward or Wallace but to ... James Harrison?

“He's got a ridiculous work ethic,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “I think everyone respects that, and it is very evident. He's in great shape over the course of a 12-month calendar. He's always working his body and working his craft. He's very comparable to James Harrison in that mentality.

“I think that's why he's endeared himself with his teammates. I think that's why he is as productive as he is.”

Brown is one of the few No. 1 receivers who doubles as the team's primary punt returner.

His 12.9 yards per return average is the league's fourth-best, and he has one of the 13 punt return touchdowns this season.

“Name another No. 1 with similar stats to Brown that returns punts,” Tomlin said.

“We appreciate his versatility and willingness to be an asset to us on special teams, as well as offense.”

Of the other seven wide receivers in the punt return top 10, only Julian Edelman (89 receptions) of New England is within 41 catches of Brown, whose 67-yard punt return score was a key to the 30-20 upset of the Bengals on Sunday night.

Brown's maturation factors into his development as a game-changing offensive force, Tomlin said.

“As this thing continues to unfold, I just want to excel — and help us win games,” Brown said.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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