Antonio Brown cultivated his Pro Bowl resume by getting to the finish line. Every play of every practice, Brown completes the play from anywhere on the field with a sprint to the goal line.
Brown’s practice habits are becoming the stuff of legend around the Steelers’ South Side headquarters. The work ethic is the reason Brown has transformed himself from an afterthought of a sixth-round draft choice in 2010 to one of the best receivers in the NFL.
“He’s a finisher,” veteran cornerback Ike Taylor said. “He is always finishing the play. Coach has to tell him to come back to the huddle. If he catches a slant in practice, he runs 70 yards down the field. We have to wait on him to jog back. He is the ultimate finisher. He finishes every play. When you see him make the plays in the game, you say, ‘Oh, that’s A.B. That’s what he does.’”
“He’s a pro in every sense of the word,” added offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “The guy comes to work every single day. He doesn’t have half-speed to his repertoire. If it’s a walkthrough, he’s still going full speed. I’ve never seen someone get so excited in walkthroughs. He’s genuinely excited to catch the ball anytime it’s thrown to him.”
Brown’s finishing mentality produced a single-season franchise record of 1,499 receiving yards last season and another Pro Bowl selection, his second in the past three seasons. He also became the first player in NFL history to record at least five receptions and 50 yards in all 16 regular-season games. He will try to continue that impressive streak Sunday at Heinz Field when the Steelers play host to the Cleveland Browns in the season opener.
That’s the type of consistency NFL coaches dream about.
“He’s a big dog,” Haley said. “Every time you put a year like last year out there, it raises the bar. I think he understands that. He’s going against one of the best cornerbacks in the league this week in Joe Haden. That’s a great challenge for him, and one I know he’s excited about.”
Brown, who is 5 feet 10 and 186 pounds, set career highs last season, but he has been a consistent force in the offense since 2011. He completed a three-season stretch in which he accumulated more receiving yards than anyone else in Steelers history not named Hines Ward.
Brown had 3,394 receiving yards the past three seasons. Ward had 3,495 yards in a three-year span from 2002-04. The only other Steelers receiver to average more than 1,000 yards over three consecutive seasons was Plaxico Burress, who had 3,193 yards from 2001-03.
Brown doesn’t begin to approach the outrageous production of Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, who has 5,137 receiving yards over past three years. But he is the same ballpark many others who annually rank among the league’s top pass-catchers.
Wes Welker of the Denver Broncos has 3,701 in the past three seasons. Denver’s Demaryius Thomas has 3,415, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green has 3,833, Houston’s Andre Johnson has 3,497 and Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson 3,322.
“My first couple of days here it was apparent he was a great player,” said veteran receiver Lance Moore, who joined the Steelers this spring after eight seasons in New Orleans. “You can watch from afar, but, when you’re up close and personal, you really a get a view of why he is as great as he is.
“He shows up to work every day. He’s one of the hardest workers out there. You look at him in practice and you can see in his mind he’s playing the game. His numbers are astronomical because of the way he prepares.”
One of the most impressive aspects of Brown’s production is that he started only 27 of the past 48 regular-season games. He did his damage despite starting only three games in 2011 and missing three with an ankle injury in 2012.
“It’s about hard work and being on the same page with your quarterback,” Brown said.
It hasn’t always been that way. As a rookie, Brown played in nine games and totaled 16 receptions for 167 yards. Early in that Super Bowl season, he made a mark on special teams, returning a kickoff for a touchdown in the second game of the season at Tennessee.
By the time the playoffs arrived, he was one of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite targets. He caught a 58-yard pass on the final drive of the divisional-round playoff against the Baltimore Ravens that set up the winning touchdown. The next week in the AFC championship game against the New York Jets, he caught a late third-down pass that enabled the Steelers to run out the clock.
“That big-play potential was in effect,” Taylor recalled of Brown’s rookie season. “You just had to leash him. Once he ate a little bit and started to make plays and the game started slowing down for him, let that leash get longer and you let that animal take off. That was A.B.”
Now, those big plays are counted on weekly by the Steelers. He was named team MVP last season for the second time in three years. His 110 catches were second most in team history.
All from someone who was drafted after Thaddeus Gibson, Chris Scott, Crezdon Butler, Sylvester Stevenson and Jonathan Dwyer, all of whom are not longer with the team. Gibson, Scott and Butler are out of the NFL.
“To come in with that chip on your shoulder and not lose your edge is impressive,” Moore said. “It’s impressive to see guys maintain it. You see guys burst onto the scene and fizzle out or you see guys who don’t end up being what people think they could have been. He has kept that chip.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.