In his first NFL game, the first time he touched the ball, Antonio Brown returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown at Tennessee. For the longest time, it seemed Brown could do no wrong.
Other big plays followed the kick return in his rookie year in 2010. Brown caught a 58-yard pass that set up the winning touchdown in an AFC divisional-round playoff victory against the Baltimore Ravens. In the AFC championship game, Brown caught the first-down pass from Ben Roethlisberger that clinched victory against the New York Jets.
Brown followed up his highly productive rookie season by earning team MVP honors last season. He compiled 1,108 receiving yards and went to the Pro Bowl for his work on special teams as a kick-returner.
The Steelers rewarded him with a six-year, $42.5 million dollar contract during training camp.
But, in his first season as a full-time starter, Brown's expected breakout year has been spoiled by a few untimely errors and an ankle injury.
He has fumbled twice in crucial situations that allowed opponents to come from behind to beat the Steelers. In the third game of the season at Oakland, he fumbled in the fourth quarter with the Steelers leading by three. The Raiders marched down the field for the tying field goal with 6:30 left, then kicked the winning field goal on the final play of regulation.
Last week in Dallas, Brown fumbled after a long punt return with the Steelers up by a touchdown. The Cowboys scored the tying touchdown with 6:55 remaining in regulation and won in overtime.
In between, Brown missed three games with a sprained ankle.
"You have to rise up," Brown said. "It's definitely time to rise up. I'm not looking backward on those moments. I just know I have to better, and this week presents another opportunity."
Brown has 668 yards receiving and three touchdowns, but his issue has not been so much a lack of production as fumbling. He had one fumble in his first two seasons. He has four this season. He fumbled twice against Oakland and was fortunate to recover the first in the end zone for a touchdown.
Brown hasn't been the only Steeler with a fumbling problem. It's been a team-wide problem and has contributed greatly to seven losses.
The Steelers have 18 turnovers in the past five games. They are 1-4 in those games and on the brink of playoff elimination as a result.
"I have to definitely be smart and protect the ball," Brown said. "I have to be more ball-aware and make it a point of emphasis to secure it in the game. I have to be smarter in situations."
Fellow third-year receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who has three fumbles, said coach Mike Tomlin has spent the week reinforcing to players the importance of protecting the ball.
"This entire week we've been focused on keeping the ball high and tight," Sanders said. "Coach has made a great emphasis on ball security. Whether it's fumbling or interceptions or dropping passes -- just take care of the football. We know we have to do that. We've lost the majority of games because of turnovers. It's a problem we have to handle, and we're going to try to handle it this week."
Sanders and Mike Wallace have not enjoyed the seasons they thought they would, either. Wallace has been plagued by drops and has not made as many big plays as he did his first three seasons. Like Brown, Sanders has dealt with injuries and has had his share of turnovers and drops.
But the season doesn't have to be a washout for the receivers. A victory Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field and another next week against Cleveland will land the Steelers in the playoffs.
"The season's not over," veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "We have something to fight for the last two games. What better way to help this team than win these last two games, get in the playoffs and make a run? How we got to this point, we're not going to waste time and energy dwelling on that. We're just going to look at what's in front of us. Let's go make some plays and get in these playoffs."
If the previous two games are any indication, the receivers should have plenty of opportunities to make plays. The running game has been inconsistent and Roethlisberger attempted 81 passes in the losses against the San Diego Chargers and Cowboys after returning from rib and shoulder injuries.
Brown said the receivers want the game on their shoulders.
"This week is a point of emphasis for guys in our room to step up," he said. "We can be a reason we win this Sunday."
NOTES -- Cornerback Keenan Lewis was limited in practice with a knee injury, but he is listed as probable. He did not practice Thursday. "I did a little more running around," he said. "I feel like it's getting better. I still have two more days and, hopefully, I'll be ready to go. I have two more days to see where I'm at. I'm excited. I feel like it's getting better. It got better from Wednesday to today. Two more days, it should be better." ... If Lewis cannot play, the Steelers would be without their top two corners against the Bengals. Ike Taylor (leg) was ruled out earlier in the week. ... The good news for the Steelers is cornerback Cortez Allen (groin) is listed as probable and will start after missing the Cowboys game... Offensive tackle Mike Adams (ankle) is listed as doubtful, and several others are listed as probable, including linebacker James Harrison (illness), offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey (illness) and defensive end Cameron Heyward (not injury-related).Steelers - mobilehome