PITTSBURGH (AP) – Antonio Brown’s brilliance is sometimes overshadowed by everything else that comes with it.
The elaborate and occasionally illegal touchdown celebrations. The rare and highly meme-friendly karate kick to an opposing punter’s face. The intermittent Twitter post about officiating. The curious late-game play call designed solely to extend a “record” that while impressive isn’t actually recognized by the NFL.
Strip it all away, however, and there’s this: the undersized but relentless Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver is elbowing his way into the conversation among the best at his position and maybe one of the most valuable players in the game.
Heading into Sunday night’s game against Baltimore, the two-time Pro Bowler is on his way to the greatest season by a receiver in team history. Brown leads the NFL with 60 receptions and his 852 yards receiving rank second to good friend and former pee-wee football teammate T.Y. Hilton of the Indianapolis Colts. All this despite facing frequent double teams as opponents try to neutralize Brown in an often ill-fated attempt to force Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to look elsewhere with the ball.
Good luck with that.
“When you step into a stadium he’s a known issue but still he performs,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We could talk about some of the things about guys like (Houston Texans defensive end) JJ Watt. We knew what he was capable of when we were getting ready to play him, but it still doesn’t stop the storm from coming.”
The storm reached a frenzy last Sunday against Indianapolis, when Brown caught a season-high 10 passes for 133 yards and two scores in a 51-34 victory over the Colts, numbers made all the more staggering by the fact Brown spent the first quarter as a decoy.
His first reception went for 14 yards. His second was a one-handed, 8-yard touchdown in which he cupped the ball with his left hand while shielding a defender and dragging both feet. His third was a 47-yard catch-and-run score that showcased the unspoken rapport he’s developed with Roethlisberger.
On first down near midfield, Roethlisberger took the snap, evaded a sack and drifted to his right. Brown immediately broke off his route and darted into his quarterback’s line of vision, raising his hand when he gained a step. He hauled in the spiral at the Indianapolis 20 and won a footrace to the end zone.
It was a sublime display of a quarterback and receiver working on the same wavelength, though don’t expect Brown’s teammates to express surprise. At this point anything that happens in front of 60,000 people is simply an extension of what they witness on a daily basis.
“You see the one-handed catches and the long catches and runs in practice the same way you do in the games on Sunday,” Steelers wide receiver Lance Moore said. “He sets the tone and everybody else follows.”
Even if no one else can keep up. Brown is on pace to eclipse his own team record of 1,499 yards receiving he set last year and could establish new club marks for receptions and receiving touchdowns for the Steelers (5-3).
Yet Brown toils in relative obscurity. At 5-feet-10 he’s not a physical marvel like Calvin Johnson or Dez Bryant. His toothy smile hardly mirrors Steve Smith’s visceral tenaciousness. He plays for a franchise known for winning and rugged play in that order even as the Steelers have the fourth-best passing offense in the league.
The 26-year-old insists he doesn’t seek the spotlight, one that tends to find him only when things get weird.
Brown drew an unnecessary roughness penalty in the opener against Cleveland when he tagged Browns punter Spencer Lanning in the face with his right cleat during a return, the most memorable moment from a day he caught six passes for 116 yards and a score. He drew another flag following a bizarre touchdown dance against the Buccaneers on Sept. 28 in which he spun the ball then fell to the ground, a no-no he insisted he didn’t know was illegal.
Two weeks later against Jacksonville, the Steelers ran a short flare pass to Brown at the 2-minute warning rather than run the ball while trying to protect a seven-point lead. The grab extended Brown’s record streak of games with at least five catches and 50 yards receiving, a stretch now at 24 games and counting. Following a Monday night-win over Houston, he took to Twitter to express his frustration when officials ruled he didn’t get both feet in bounds while hauling in what would have been a clinching touchdown pass.
Brown deleted the post and later apologized. Not exactly the way to raise your national profile, though after consecutive 8-8 seasons Brown insists he’s focused on wins and not notoriety or his own gaudy stats. And his teammates believe him.
“He always tries to encourage us when he sees us not staying after to catch balls or not paying attention in meetings, stuff like that,” second-year receiver Markus Wheaton said. “He’s always on top of us. As a group, he keeps us all going and all moving forward.”
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