December 30, 2011
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24: Wide reciever Mike Wallace #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catches a pass during the game against the St. Louis Rams at Heinz Field on December 24, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH (AP)—Mike Wallace might have to come up with a new nickname forAntonio Brown.
At the rate the fellow Pittsburgh wide receiver is going, “Little Brother”isn’t going to cut it much longer.
In two seasons, Brown has evolved from sixth-round pick to fringe player to return specialist to the franchise’s most valuable player, at least, according to his teammates.
Two days after being selected—along with Wallace—to his first Pro Bowl, Brown was voted the team MVP by his peers. The honor capped a remarkable rise for the humble 25-year-old, who broke the franchise’s record for all-purpose yards in a season last week in a 27-0 romp over St. Louis.
No Steeler, not Franco Harris or John Stallworth or Jerome Bettis, has put up more than the 2,048 yards Brown has this season.
Not bad for an undersized kid from Central Michigan who wondered if he’d ever make it in the NFL. At 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds, Brown doesn’t exactly cast an imposing shadow across the line of scrimmage.
He has made up for it with a work ethic that hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates. Consistently the last to leave the practice field, Brown’s dedication won over a locker room loaded guys well into their 30s.
“That’s a great testimony for hard work,” offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “I don’t know if anyone worked harder. He came back in fabulous shape, had a great camp and it just led into a really good season for him.”
One that Brown believes is the first of many alongside Wallace, who marvels at how quickly his good friend has climbed to the edge of stardom.
“I took the long road, but that guy really took the long road,” Wallace said.
Brown has gone from a curiosity into a necessity. Though he was selected to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner, his work at receiver has turned heads.
Brown heads into the regular-season finale Sunday at Cleveland second on the team with 63 receptions. He went over 1,000 yards last week against St. Louis and, with a big—OK, really big—day could chase down Wallace for the lead in both categories.
Just as importantly, Brown has earned quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’strust.
Roethlisberger jokingly called Brown a “gnat” for the way he’s always in the quarterback’s ear, yet Brown has become Roethlisberger’s favorite target in crunch time. Brown is second in the AFC with 23 third-down catches and his hands have become the best on the team not belonging to veteran Hines Ward.
“You have to stay the course, do the process, not get too high or too low,” Brown said. “You have to remain at peace within, and when opportunities come you take advantage of them.”
Brown began the season fourth on the depth chart behind Wallace, Ward andEmmanuel Sanders. Yet, Brown’s steady play combined with Sanders’ injury issues and Ward’s diminished role have made Brown a fixture in the huddle.
Don’t expect him to go anywhere anytime soon. He’s happy in Pittsburgh and has no problem playing the role of sidekick to Wallace. Brown readily admits his late-season surge has come courtesy of teams paying so much attention to Wallace.
The player jokingly dubbed a “one-trick pony” by coach Mike Tomlin for his tendency to go deep but do little else has evolved into a dedicated route runner. Brown is getting more comfortable working underneath rather than turning each snap into a track meet.
“I guess I’m not a one-trick guy anymore,” Wallace said. “I’ve got two.”
Though Wallace didn’t come close to the 2,000-yard season he lightheartedly predicted in the preseason, he has become a true No. 1 receiver. He has eight touchdown receptions to easily top the team—no one else has more than two—and he’s using his speed to turn short plays into long ones rather than just seeing how far Roethlisberger can chuck the ball.
“I kind of take offense to that when people tell me you just go deep all the time,” Wallace said. “If you want to do that, that’s great. (My speed) is my best asset and I’m happy about that, but that’s not all I do. I do whatever I need to do to go out and win.”
It’s a mindset that permeates the locker room, one Wallace and Brown have gleaned from spending long days with Ward, who needs five receptions Sunday to reach 1,000 for his career.
Ward has put up the kind of numbers Brown and Wallace, who have a combined 249 career catches, can hardly fathom. The number they’re more concerned with, however, is two: the total of Super Bowl rings Ward has won.
“That’s why you’re here, to win Super Bowls,” Wallace said. “The Pro Bowls, the big stats, they’re great. But we know the only way we’re judged is by what happens in January. And that’s what we’re focused on.”
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