PITTSBURGH – On the football field, Antonio Brown is an electric player, all smiles and determination.
Off the field, he’s a far different person. Studious. Quiet. Laid back.
It was something of a surprise for Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann, a longtime NFL assistant who joined Pittsburgh this season.
“I had to talk to him to get him to be more vocal,” said Mann.
It’s not that Brown, who is entering his fourth season, doesn’t want to be a leader. He just doesn’t talk a lot in certain situations.
“I know guys look to me around here and respect what I’ve done thus far,” said Brown. “I know I’ve got to lead with actions. Words are just words. I want to try to lead with actions. When I lead with actions, it will mean a lot.”
Brown hopes that when teammates see his work ethic and desire to improve, it will make them want to work that hard as well.
It’s always been hard to miss.
“Ever since he was a rookie, he’s come in and made plays,” said wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who was drafted in the third round – three ahead of Brown – in 2010. “I feel like people put a lot of hype on making that big jump. He has to continue to be himself. He doesn’t have to try and be something he’s not.”
What Brown is now is the Steelers’ unquestioned No. 1 receiver now that Mike Wallace left in the offseason as a free agent for Miami.
After showing flashes of explosiveness in his rookie season, Brown had a breakout season in 2011, setting a team record for total yards from scrimmage with 2,211, including 1,108 receiving yards. He earned a trip to the Pro Bowl as the AFC’s return specialist after becoming the first player in league history to record both 1,000 yards receiving and on returns in the same season.
“He had a heck of a start,” said veteran Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotchery. “In his second year, he just blew it out of the water. Usually when you blow it out of the water, people see you’re legit, so he started getting some attention.”
With his quick smile and toughness and work ethic, the Steelers tapped Brown as their heir to Hines Ward and gave him a five-year, $42.5-million contract extension before the 2012 season.
But a midseason ankle injury forced Brown to miss three games and though he caught just three fewer passes – 69 to 66 – from the previous season, his yardage total fell to 787.
“I don’t look at it as disappointing,” said Brown of his season. “Every year that you play in this league is a blessing; every game is a blessing. It so happened that our team didn’t do as well. When your team doesn’t do as well, you use that as motivation to get better.”
The early returns have been good. Brown has consistently tortured the Steelers’ secondary throughout the offseason workouts and training camp practices. Last Saturday against Kansas City in the team’s third preseason game, he hauled in three catches for 61 yards, including a 49-yard reception, while playing just the first half.
“The sky is the limit,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said of Brown. “He can be as good as he wants to be. I have seen growth in him and improvements, and that is what we want to see. He has come along as a No. 1 guy.”
Brown wants to be the best.
It’s something that has driven him since major colleges overlooked him coming out of high school when he wound up at Central Michigan while other players he competed against in Florida wound up at larger schools. It’s driven him since head coach Mike Tomlin pitted him against Sanders for playing time in their rookie seasons. And it drives him with the pressure on to replace Wallace.
“Sometimes, I sit in meetings and just try to reflect and be a sponge,” said Brown. “I don’t talk too much. I try to fill up my notebook. I want to be as smart as I can be, watch the tape and try to get better.
“Every year is a year to improve, a year to get better. That’s the approach I take.”
Odds and end zones
Tomlin said Tuesday that linebacker Jarvis Jones and running backs Isaac Redman and Le’Veon Bell will not play in the Steelers’ preseason finale Thursday night at Carolina. … Tomlin also said that the team will evaluate tight end Heath Miller’s status when it returns from Carolina but that he is progressing well. Miller has been on the PUP list since the start of training camp as he recovers from an ACL injury. … Rookie Landry Jones will get the majority of playing time at quarterback against the Panthers.