Ron Cook: Antonio Brown’s best is still to come



Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown is a pretty good player, right? We saw his formidable talent again Sunday when he had seven catches for 147 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-27 win against the Detroit Lions. Brown leads the NFL with 74 catches, two more than Houston’s Andre Johnson. He ranks fifth with 952 receiving yards, the second most by a Steelers player after 10 games since 1960. A case can be made Brown is well on his way to being the team’s Most Valuable Player for the second time in three seasons, although Ben Roethlisberger’s supporters in the locker room might vote differently.

But Brown isn’t even close to being the player he can, should and, hopefully, will be. This is just his fourth NFL season and he’s far from a finished product. He still will drop critical passes from time to time, as he did twice in the Steelers’ 21-18 loss Oct. 27 to the Oakland Raiders. Roethlisberger challenged him to be better after that game. Even worse, Brown still often will run the wrong route, as he did late in the 55-31 loss Nov. 3 at New England. Coach Mike Tomlin benched him immediately that day. Brown’s mental errors happen more than you might think.

“I’ve definitely got to get better,” Brown said.

That was nice to hear. Even more encouraging was Brown’s declaration that he plans on training in the offseason with Lions great Calvin Johnson in Atlanta. Johnson is considered the best receiver in the NFL and the Lions’ hardest worker. He’s also a student of the game. No one becomes truly great without paying attention to even the smallest details.

“Anything I can do to learn from him, I’ll do,” Brown said.

Look out if a little of Johnson rubs off on Brown.

We’ll be talking about a really special player in Brown.

Brown has such respect for Johnson that he asked to exchange jerseys with him after the game Sunday. You should have seen him stick Johnson’s No. 81 jersey — covered with dirt, grass stains, sweat and perhaps even a little blood — into his backpack before heading off into the Pittsburgh night. He clearly treasured his valuable piece of memorabilia.

But Johnson went home with a nice prize, as well. Brown’s No. 84 jersey might be worth something one day. A lot, actually.

“We’ve got a big-time wideout of our own,” Tomlin said. “We think he is capable of affecting the outcome of games, much like their guy.”

Brown had a huge impact Sunday, both early and late in the game. He turned short passes from Roethlisberger into 34- and 47-yard touchdowns on the first two possessions as the Steelers opened with their no-huddle offense. “The no-huddle helps a lot,” Brown said. “Ben can get the defense from not getting their plays in. We can speed things up.”

As impressive as Brown’s catch-and-runs were, his 16-yard grab early in the fourth quarter on a third-and-9 play from the Steelers 4 with the Lions leading, 27-23, might have been more meaningful. The Steelers ended up going 97 yards in 16 plays to score the go-ahead touchdown on that drive.

“Ben put me in some opportunities where I could make some plays,” Brown said.

Brown did.

Roethlisberger targeted him 13 times, the same number that Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford targeted Johnson.

“That’s a credit to him,” Roethlisberger said of Brown. “He just makes plays, when it’s there and when it’s not there. That’s just the special player that he is.”

It looked as if Brown was eager to hold his own against Johnson. The hype surrounding Johnson in the days leading up to the game was everywhere. If Brown heard “Megatron” — Johnson’s nickname — once during the week, he heard it hundreds of times.

“Not a lot was written and said about [Brown], of course,” Tomlin said.

Johnson had a better statistical day with six catches for 179 yards and one touchdown despite, improbably, being held without a catch in the second half. That was OK with Brown. He didn’t just leave Heinz Field with Johnson’s prized jersey. He and his teammates went home with a significant win, one that pulled them to the fringe of relevancy in the AFC playoff picture.

“This game isn’t about proving yourself to any individual,” Brown said. “It’s all about team …

“I’m always the same no matter who we’re playing. I’m just trying to will my team to win.”

Brown did a great job of it against the Lions.

Who knows what he’ll do Sunday when the Steelers play in Cleveland?

The feeling here is his best is yet to come.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Vinnie and Cook” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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