PITTSBURGH – Lost in the doldrums of the Steelers’ 0-4 start has been the play of wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Coming off a disappointing season, in which he failed to build upon his Pro Bowl 2011 season, Brown has been everything the Steelers believed he would be when they handed him a five-year, $42.5-million contract extension last year.
Brown entered the weekend fifth in the NFL with 32 pass receptions and 412 receiving yards, while matching New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham for first in the league with 23 catches that have resulted in first downs.
In a season in which the rest of Pittsburgh’s offense seems out of sync, Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have had no such issues.
“That’s just me and him being on the same page, him trusting me to be where I’m supposed to be and me knowing where he wants me to be,” said Brown, who had a career-high 12 receptions for 88 yards in last week’s 34-27 loss to Minnesota in London. “That’s the type of rapport you want to build with your quarterback.”
The Steelers, who return to practice today after having the weekend off, hope Roethlisberger can build a similar rapport with his other receivers.
While Brown’s 32 receptions have come on just 43 pass attempts thrown his way – a completion percentage of 74 percent – Roethlisberger has completed just 20 of 38 passes to starting receiver Emmanuel Sanders, and 15 of 26 to No. 3 receiver Jerricho Cotchery.
Roethlisberger has noticed improvement in recent weeks, but there are still enough plays in which he’s not in tune with Sanders and Cotchery. It has led to some interceptions.
Two weeks ago, in a loss to Chicago, Roethlisberger threw a ball to Cotchery earlier than the receiver expected and the pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Against the Vikings, Roethlisberger stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure and moved toward the line of scrimmage. Spotting Sanders open running across the middle, Roethlisberger led him with a pass. But as Roethlisberger released the ball, Sanders stopped running, making for an easy interception by linebacker Chad Greenway.
“There are some things here and there,” Roethlisberger said. “The interception early was just kind of a mishap between me and Emmanuel. It happens. You just can’t let it happen. We can clean up some things.
“We got better. There is still more (to do), because we will never be perfect. We try to strive for that, but we will never be there.”
He has been close to perfect when working with Brown.
In the last two games, Brown has 21 receptions for 284 yards and two touchdowns. The two-game total is the most by a Pittsburgh player since Hines Ward had 21 catches against Atlanta and Tennessee in 2002. Ward had 303 receiving yards and three touchdowns in those games.
Like Brown’s, Ward’s huge receiving efforts didn’t lead to victories. The Steelers tied Atlanta and lost to Tennessee.
“None of it matters because we lost,” said Brown, who is on pace to shatter Ward’s team record of 112 catches in a season.
But, like Roethlisberger, Brown says the Steelers are improving. The offense has averaged 25 points per game in its last two games, after scoring 19 points in the first two games.
Turnovers, however, continue to be an issue. The Steelers have 11 turnovers in four games.
“We’re doing some positive things,” Brown said. “We’re still searching for the ceiling when it comes to being on the same page. We’ve got to get better. When we come out of this building next week, we’re searching for the ceiling.”