Success Story Just Starting for Brown

Antonio Brown replaced Hines Ward in the starting lineup for the Steelers and the AFC's top producer on third downs has no plans of looking back.

Legend has it that 1971 first-round pick Frank Lewis would've been a Hall of Fame receiver with the Steelers had he not been so shy and had learned how to politic his quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, the way Lynn Swann and John Stallworth had.

The way Antonio Brown has.

"It helps," said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "Even today when I wasn't doing much, [Brown] came to me and wanted to talk about one particular route: ‘If a guy is behind me here what do you want me to do here?'

"Those little things are huge. [It shows] that he wants to be – he wants to be great."

Brown replaced greatness last game in Cincinnati when he started in place of Hines Ward. It was the first start of Brown's career and he responded with 5 catches for 86 yards.

Most of that production occurred on one drive. In the middle of the second quarter, Roethlisberger went deep to Brown, who did not come back for the ball and it was nearly intercepted by one of the two Bengals who had come back. But the drive continued and Roethlisberger repeatedly fed his second-year receiver. Brown matriculated the ball down the field 4 times for 74 yards – on what became, due to sacks and a penalty, a 67-yard field-goal drive.

So why can't every drive be that way for the fast, explosive and sticky-fingered Brown?

"They can," Brown said with an earnest and wide smile.

"In that game," he explained, "their guy [Leon Hall] was pressing me one-on-one backside, and when Ben sees one-on-one matchups he's going to give me an opportunity to win. That's how that drive was."

Brown kept the drive alive with conversion catches on third-and-19 and third-and-7. He's become so good on that down that Brown left the Cincinnati game as the leader in the AFC and the first runner-up in the NFL with both 18 third-down catches and 282 third-down receiving yards.

How did Brown become Roethlisberger's go-to guy on such critical downs in such a short period of time? It couldn't have been mere politics, could it?

"I think it was the catches that I made in the playoff games, those third-down catches," Brown said of his clutch late-game conversions against both the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets.

"The quarterback trusted me on third down and that's why he continues to come to me."

"A lot of that goes back to Mike [Wallace]," said Roethlisberger. "A lot of that is people are rolling over Mike and we put Antonio in a spot on the backside where he's running the backside position and he's singled up a lot, and when you get single coverage and you have a guy as talented as he is, with his body control, with his hands, with his speed to run deep – it's not like he's just a slow guy who can't threaten people deep – but he just has a lot of tools and he puts in the extra work.

"If you watch us during practice," Roethlisberger continued, "he's constantly by my side. I don't want to say this in a negative way but he's like a gnat. He's just always right there. And it's good because he's coming asking me, ‘OK, Ben on this play how do you want me to do this? Do you want me to do this?' And I think that's awesome because I know where he's going to be; he knows where I want him to be. And that's one of the biggest reasons I think that we've been so successful on third down on that backside is because of the extra communication that he puts in and that we put in together."

But Brown's just getting started. The son of the greatest player in Arena Football League history, Eddie Brown, Antonio has 60 career NFL catches since coming out of Central Michigan in 2010 as the Steelers' 6b draft pick. As a rookie, Brown made two catches before he began to see significant playing time in December last season.

Brown caught 14 passes for 140 yards in the Steelers' final five games of his rookie season, and then caught 5 passes for 90 yards in the postseason. That, of course, was before he knew what he was doing.

This season his understanding of his assignments, of his blitz reads, has improved dramatically because he's playing only one spot. The Steelers moved him to the "X" receiver position and have left him there.

"Being in that spot has given him a better comfort level," said Ward, the man, the legend, whom Brown has replaced in the starting lineup.

"He's out there making plays and Ben has all the confidence in the world throwing it up, and he's coming down making catches," Ward said. "I love everything about him. He's still young, but with the talent that you see, he's on the rise."

Brown's best moment?

"Hasn't happened yet," he said with a smile. "No, I've got a lot of them, but I ain't focused on which one. Right now it's about next week." Next Sunday night the Steelers will be in Kansas City to play the Chiefs in a prime-time game. It's prime time for Brown because that's where his father lives and coaches high school ball.

What does "Touchdown" Eddie Brown say about Antonio's game?

"He sees me getting better," Brown said, "but he continues to critique me, continues to focus on the little things that make me better, and continues to provide insight into the things that will make me better each week."

And then there are his return skills. Brown is the only AFC return man ranked in the top 5 in the conference in both kickoff and punt-return average. Brown is fourth in both and hopes it'll result in a berth to the Pro Bowl.

"Before this year coach told me he expected me to be a Pro Bowl returner," Brown said. "I'm definitely looking forward to making a big splash play and getting in that position."

It's not like Brown is surprised by this level of success. He expected it, even while languishing in the hinterlands of Central Michigan.

"There was no question in my mind," Brown said. "It may be a surprise for others, but not for me."

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