LATROBE, Pa. -- By all objective standards, Antonio Brown’s spectacular breakout season in 2013 was an unassailable success. He obliterated the Steelers' single-season receiving record with 1,499 yards and came within two catches of tying Hines Ward’s 2002 team mark of 112 receptions. But it’s that one lousy yard that he didn’t gain and those two grabs he couldn’t make that still eats at Pittsburgh’s fifth-year receiver as a new season dawns.
"I know, man, can you believe that?" said Brown, laughing, when I dared remind him he can’t legitimately call himself a 1,500-yard receiver just yet, not without rounding up. "That just gave me motivation for this year. I think about any one catch I could have made to get that yard, and I get pissed off. And I was two catches away from a team record. That’s the sort of thing that drives you the next year. When you fall just short, you want to push forward. But it’s a new year and you have to rebuild and start all over and do it again. I’m just excited I get another opportunity at it."
So are the Steelers. There were plenty of setbacks and disappointments en route to Pittsburgh’s second consecutive 8-8 season in 2013, but Brown’s sudden emergence among the ranks of the game’s elite receivers was the best development of the year for a team stuck in the middle of the league. The Steelers' new-look receiving corps has a lot of questions still to be answered and just one given this year: Brown is the group’s unquestioned top playmaker and leader. It’s Brown at No. 1, and then let’s see what develops as the season plays out in Pittsburgh.
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"Antonio is a Pro Bowl player, but I can’t honestly tell you how it’s going to shake out behind him," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said this week during the team’s training camp at always picturesque St. Vincent College. "He’s a short receiver who can turn a short reception into a big gain, he can make the intermediate catches and he can get deep and be a weapon in the return game. So we know what we have in him at No. 1. But I don’t know the order of the guys we’ll have behind him, other than we have a lot of candidates at that position."
The possibilities after Brown, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, are many. But the Steelers, with their history of uncovering receiving gems from the ranks of the unknown, seem intrigued by the potential they have in camp. Once upon a time, people outside Pittsburgh’s organization didn’t know what the Steelers had in Mike Wallace or Emmanuel Sanders either, but those two receivers both left Pittsburgh the past two offseasons as well-paid free agents. Brown, a sixth-round pick in 2010, stayed after signing a $42 million extension in 2012 and last year became the first receiver in league history to post at least five catches and 50 yards receiving in each of his team’s 16 games.
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Will second-year receivers Markus Wheaton, Justin Brown or Derek Moye be the Steelers' next Wallace or Sanders, developing into proven play-makers this year, or might rookie fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant emerge as a big-bodied target for Ben Roethlisberger? And what about the dual threat posed by Dri Archer, the diminutive former Kent State star who is getting work at both running back and receiver and also using his 4.26 speed in the return game? Add in the veteran talents of former Saints slot man Lance Moore, who is replacing Jerricho Cotchery (now with Carolina), and ex-Colt Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Pittsburgh has a varied and versatile collection of receiving options to choose from. This much is clear: The Steelers' receiving depth chart looks deeper and potentially more explosive than it has in years.
"I feel good about the group," eighth-year Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said. "Some of them are unproven, but that’s what [training camp] is about. A few short years ago, Antonio Brown was unproven. They’ve all got the pedigree, they work extremely hard, they’ve got a quarterback they should have a great deal of confidence in, and they’ve got a lot of the ingredients to ascend and to explode onto the scene. We anticipate Markus and some others doing that."
One of the best bets to show up when the regular season opens next month against Cleveland is Justin Brown, a 2013 sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma who spent last year on the Steelers' practice squad. Brown had a strong body of work this offseason and has flashed early and often in camp, with Tomlin telling people within the organization to keep an eye out for his emergence this season. At 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, Brown would bring some much-needed size to the receiving corps, as will Bryant at 6-4, 211, and Moye (6-5, 210) if he makes the cut.
"Justin Brown is kind of flying under the radar, but he had a really good spring," Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "I took some flak from people for saying this was the deepest group I’ve ever had, because they thought I was saying it was the best group. It’s a deep group. Clearly you can’t say it’s the best group at this point. But when you have a deep group, there’s going to be great competition and generally good things come out of that. We’ve got a number of guys fighting it out."
Height and size, however, aren’t a necessity to excel in the Pittsburgh passing game, of course, as the 5-foot-10, 186-pound Antonio Brown has proven. The 5-9, 190-pound Moore already seems to have a solid security-blanket connection building with Roethlisberger, and Steelers fans can’t wait to see how Haley employs Archer, the third-round pick who ran faster than anyone at the NFL Scouting Combine this year and could wind up being an X-factor for the offense, lining up in a variety of spots. Archer’s speed and how to best deploy it has been one of the most tantalizing topics of training camp.
"I’ve been noticing every time I line up, everyone on defense is pointing and calling out where I’m at," Archer said. "It’s been pretty interesting to see them reacting to where I’m lining up and making their checks.
"I might be split out wide, I might be in the backfield, I might be in gun, a lot of different things. I thought I’d fit well in this offense. It’s a great organization and a great team, and I couldn’t have found a better place for me."
Archer said the reaction to his speed from his defensive teammates has been fairly consistent thus far: "They just tell me I’m fast as hell, a lot," he said.
Or as 12th-year Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor puts it: "When I saw his speed, it was like, man, with some people you don’t even try to catch them. He’s just fast. That’s the part you don’t want to do, you don’t want to do no chasing. You want to go ahead and get him on the ground quick, because once he gets in that open field, it’s night-night. And night-night means ain’t nobody catching him. I’m just glad he’s on our team."
The receiving depth chart has a bountiful supply of potential, but it’s the production that Antonio Brown turned in last year that still headlines this group. His 110 catches were second most in the NFL behind Pierre Garcon’s 113, as were his 1,499 yards (trailing only Cleveland’s Josh Gordon with 1,646). He was tied for second in the league in first-down catches with 69, and his knack for YAC (yards after catch) was on full display as well -- his final tally of 602 ranked seventh in the NFL and fourth among receivers. In addition to his eight touchdown catches, Brown averaged 12.6 yards on punt returns, a role the Steelers say they won’t hesitate to occasionally use him in again.
This week, Brown took on a new role as the leader and spokesman of the Steelers receivers. When Sanders, his ex-teammate now in Denver, was quoted as saying Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was a much better leader than Roethlisberger, Brown took him to task for the disrespect shown to No. 7. Brown called Sanders’ comments "terrible" and admonished Sanders for needlessly throwing his former quarterback under the bus.
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"Yeah, I was a little surprised," Brown told me. "I think he’s a lot smarter than that. When you play with two legendary quarterbacks, you can’t down one at the expense of another. They’ve both got rings. Our guy’s a big-timer, and their guy’s a big-timer, and leave it at that. You don’t got nothing good to say, don’t say nothing at all.
"I’m sure he’s feeling the pressure. I think he said it thinking it would never get to Pittsburgh. That’s exactly what it was. He was speaking out of character and not knowing what he’s saying. But you’ve got to know your audience."
In Pittsburgh, Brown finally has the biggest audience possible after last year’s monster season. But he and the rest of the Steelers receivers have plenty to accomplish in 2014 -- namely, helping Pittsburgh snap its two-year run of 8-8 finishes.
"To see a guy with astronomical numbers like he had last year continue to work the way he does is impressive," said Moore, entering his 10th NFL season, but first in Pittsburgh. "I knew he was good, but to be up close and personal, you see it every day in practice why he’s as good as he is. He comes in and competes every day like there’s a game that day. He’s really, really good. He’s the total package.
"Now the rest of us have to step up. But this group as a whole will be a lot better than people probably think. Just because some of the guys haven’t played a lot doesn’t mean they’re not capable. They definitely have some ability and that will be obvious once the games start."
In Pittsburgh, a new year and a new receiving corps spell fresh opportunity for a Steelers team trying to break out of a rut. The only constant? Antonio Brown, fresh off his breakout season, will again be front and center, leading the way.