Steelers' Brown goes distance on punt return
Antonio Brown wasn't overly thrilled when he was stripped of his kickoff return duties last weekend against Kansas City.
He reluctantly relinquished the job to Emmanuel Sanders. Coach Mike Tomlin made the decision to lessen Brown's workload as the Steelers jockey for a playoff position down the stretch.
Still, Brown wanted a chance to fulfill a preseason goal of taking one the distance. So, he lobbied to continue returning punts.
On Sunday, Brown's persistence paid a huge dividend as the Steelers roughed up the Cincinnati Bengals, 35-7, to keep pace with Baltimore in the AFC North.
The mercurial wide receiver returned a punt 60 yards for a special teams touchdown that gave the Steelers a commanding 28-7 halftime lead.
Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber may have out-kicked the coverage, but the Bengals' defenders simply didn't possess the speed to deny Brown the end zone once cornerback Bryant McFadden delivered a block that enabled him to turn the corner.
Brown, who averaged 27.8 yards on kickoff returns, had only Huber to beat as he tight-roped the right sideline. With nary a Bengals player in pursuit, Huber whiffed as Brown cut back toward the middle of an open field.
"McFadden provided me with that last block that allowed me to get to the edge, and that was the key," said Brown, who had totaled only three yards on two subsequent punt returns. "From there, it was just me and the punter. Nobody touched me."
Brown's return was one of several big plays for the Steelers' special teams. Defensive end Cam Heyward blocked a 33-yard field goal attempt, and Stevenson Sylvester forced a fumble on a kickoff return that Sanders recovered.
For Brown, the return game had been a source of frustration in an otherwise productive season. He had come tantalizingly close several times to breaking through only to get tripped up with the end zone in sight.
Brown's touchdown did more than energize the already fired-up Steelers. It seemingly took the fight out of a young Cincinnati team that has dropped three of the past four games - including a 24-17 loss to the Steelers three weeks ago in Cincinnati.
The Steelers so dominated the Bengals that they didn't need Brown to work overtime. He had two receptions for 67 yards after totaling nine for 186 yards in the previous two wins over Kansas City and Cincinnati.
Instead, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sparked an efficient, error-free offense that methodically rolled up yards. Wide receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace had a combined 11 receptions, but Brown's 45-yard catch with 20 seconds remaining in the first quarter set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Rashard Mendenhall that put the Steelers up 7-0.
"We were on rhythm," Brown said. "We did a good job on offense, but we have to do this week in and week out."
Brown had the catch of the day — a dazzling 22-yard grab late in third quarter with cornerback Kelly Jennings and safety Reggie Nelson draped over his back. He, too, absorbed the game's biggest hit when Nelson delivered a crunching blow to his chest in the fourth.
"It was one of my first NFL big hits," Brown said jokingly. "You have to have the ability to get up. I was trying to find some wind."
At last, he found the end zone — a punt return that helped ease the pain.