Steelers wideout Brown continues to prove his worth
If Ben Roethlisberger is the most irreplaceable Steelers player, then Antonio Brown arguably is the most valuable player.
His teammates must feel that way, having voted the wide receiver as their MVP twice in the last three seasons — even though Roethlisberger, at the peak of his game, had two of his own best seasons at the same time.
Given how important he is to an offense in which he accounted for more than one out of every 4 yards gained in 2013, Brown probably should be called the Indispensible Steeler.
Every season there are obstacles in his path to succeeding, and every season he seems to elevate his game, increase his numbers, find a different way to get open or make up for a deficiency elsewhere.
He is 5-foot-10 — or at least he's listed that way — during a time when many elite receivers would fit into an NBA lineup. Yet Brown plays big despite being relatively small, as evidenced by his 1,499 yards receiving last season — the most in Steelers history by 101 yards.
“I love it because he's kind of the underdog,” Roethlisberger said of a player who was the second of the Steelers' two sixth-round picks in the 2010 draft. “Literally, he's the little guy among the elites.”
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley couldn't help but smile when Brown was picked for the Pro Bowl with receivers such as the 6-5 Calvin Johnson, 6-4 A.J. Green and 6-3 Larry Fitzgerald and Demaryius Thomas.
“He's maybe not the prototypical (elite receiver),” Haley said. “We made the joke, in the Pro Bowl, he's in the huddle with a bunch of 6-4, 6-5 guys, but he doesn't think they're any better than he is.
“That's part of what makes what he is. He's a little dog that plays like a big dog.”
He does, even when he's in the perceived shadow of the big dog.
In 2011, all-time Steelers receiving leader Hines Ward began the season as a starter, yet it was Brown who ended up catching 69 passes for 1,108 yards. A year later, all the attention was paid Mike Wallace in his contract year, yet Brown caught 66 passes. Last season, with Wallace gone and Emmanuel Sanders starting in his contract year, Brown made 110 catches, the second most in team history to Ward's 112 in 2002.
“He's one of those guys, those unique guys, one of the few I've been around where no matter what carrot's dangling in front of him, he always seems to find a new carrot,” Haley said. “He's never satisfied. When you've got a unique, special guy like that with the ability he has, there is no ceiling.”
Brown also is the exception to the rule that once a player gets a big contract, his performance tends to fall off because a major incentive is gone. Brown's statistics mostly have gone up, not down, since he signed a $42.5 million contract in 2012, even as the running game that supports the Steelers' passing game declined.
Brown rewarded himself during the offseason by buying a nearly $2 million house in Pine Township. That's part of his own incentive program, to keep proving to himself that he can make himself and his life better every season.
“I try to have tremendous dedication, a tremendous work ethic — and that gives me a tremendous inner peace,” Brown said. “No matter what anyone else says, I'm going to continue to grow within myself, and that brings out the best in myself.”
By overachieving, he also tends to bring the best out in his teammates. His work habits are legendary, and new receivers such as Martavis Bryant quickly learn one can get left behind in a hurry unless he attempts to keep up with Brown.
“He had a terrific year, and he came in and had a great offseason,” Haley said. “You can tell he's further ahead this year than he was last year or the year before that, and those are all good signs.”
Brown is almost always the first one in the morning, the last to leave after working on end zone fades with Roethlisberger after practice.
“His work ethic is like nothing I have ever seen before, where I literally have to slow him down because he is nonstop,” Roethlisberger said. “You love to see a guy work like that. He is going to continue to mature and grow, and he'll just keep getting better.”
“That's tremendous to have the respect of my teammates and to know what I mean to them,” Brown said.
He defends them, too, such as when he rushed to their defense following former Steelers safety Ryan Clark's allegations of marijuana use on the team. Brown said such comments represented a departure from the Steelers' accepted standard of being supportive, rather than being publicly critical, of each other.
Brown said it's a goal of his to help bring this team closer together.
This season presents yet another challenge to Brown, who has 245 catches in the three seasons since he accelerated past Sanders, a third-round pick, to become an essential part of the Steelers' offense.
Just like last season, when Wallace signed with Miami as a free agent and Sanders took his place, he'll be breaking in a new starter across from him — apparently, second-year receiver Markus Wheaton.
But unlike Sanders a year ago, Wheaton is unproven in the league — he had only six receptions during an injury-plagued rookie season. And that likely means more defensive focus until Wheaton proves worthy of attention.
Also, effective slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery (10 TD catches in 2013) is gone, with the smaller Lance Moore taking his place.
“Yeah, I'm definitely a marked man,” Brown said. “But you've got to love being a marked man because it makes the competition higher and makes you rise up in a great position.”