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Steelers star Brown ready to renew respectful rivalry with Browns' Haden

| Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, 10:21 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver Antonio Brown pulls in a second-quarter pass in front of the Browns' Joe Haden on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.

It's 8 a.m. on Labor Day. Many Pittsburghers are taking advantage of the last summer holiday to sleep in, eat a late breakfast or frown at the dreary, sunshine-deprived sky.

Antonio Brown already is looking at game video and a lot of it. The first week of the NFL season brings the first big challenge for the Steelers' Pro Bowl receiver: a one-on-one matchup with Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden.

If Brown would snap on the NFL Network, he would hear it being called one of the best individual duels of NFL Week 1.

Despite Haden's speed, coverage skills, resume and newly negotiated $67.5 million contract, with $45 million guaranteed, Brown has had success against him: a 41-yard TD catch last season, a 79-yard TD catch in 2011, a 40-yarder that same season.

But, as Brown understands, if a player rests on what he has done in the past, he might not have much of a future.

So Brown watches, studies, remembers, strategizes.

“As I go through the day, I try to grasp coverage and what I think they're going to do and some of the looks I think I'm going to see,” he said. “Just try to focus on that.”

In the past, Haden alternated between press coverage and playing off Brown, who had 110 catches for 1,499 yards last season. Regardless of how he was played, Brown caught 12 of the 17 passes thrown his way with Haden in coverage for 237 yards and a 19.0 average.

Play that way against every corner who defends him, and Brown would have a Hall of Fame career.

But Brown realizes first-year Browns coach Mike Pettine is sure to bring new schemes. The former Jets and Bills defensive coordinator loves press coverage and rolling an extra safety over — he often will play three safeties on passing downs.

Brown also expects Cleveland to try to pressure Ben Roethlisberger with five-under man fronts in which every offensive lineman must win a one-on-one battle to keep the quarterback clean.

Brown must prepare for it all.

“The first game, you've got to see what they do. They haven't really shown a lot on film,” Brown said.

Some cornerbacks try to distract him with constant chatter, but Brown said Haden won't. Their in-game communication is respectful, he said: “A lot of positive talk. ‘Good route.' ‘Good coverage.' ‘Good play.'

“It's not very controversial or negative.”

To Haden, Brown is one of the hardest receivers in the league to cover, along with Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant and the suspended Josh Gordon.

“My suggestion is that whoever is on him (Brown) pay close attention to him,” Haden said.

Brown has extra respect for Haden because he almost always shadows the other team's best receiver. Haden believes he does it well enough that over the summer he called himself the NFL's No. 1 cornerback.

“He's strong. He's really fast out of his breaks. He breaks on the ball really well, and he's a competitor,” Brown said. “Any time you've got a guy who can cover the best guy every game, who can follow the guy out of the huddle, he's a great player.”

Ike Taylor, who once did that for the Steelers, also admires Haden, saying, “He's got a cornerback attitude, regardless of whether he gets beat. He's going to be right back in your face, and you've got to play that way as a corner. And he plays like that every game.”

Brown knows Haden will play that way Sunday against him, and may the better man win.

“This is the perfect opportunity,” he 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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