PITTSBURGH — Antonio Brown wasn’t making a fashion statement, just a personal one.
While the rest of his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates worked out in black shorts during organized team activities on Tuesday, the fourth-year wide receiver darted through traffic in yellow football pants even though the first live practice won’t come for another two months.
“I just want to be ready,” Brown said.
Considering what lay ahead for the now unquestioned leader of a new-look receiving corps, a head start seems like a pretty good idea.
The departure of Pro Bowler Mike Wallace to Miami during the offseason leaves Brown and Emmanuel Sanders as the longest tenured wideouts in Pittsburgh, heady territory for players considered complimentary parts when the Steelers grabbed them three rounds apart in the 2010 Draft.
Now they are the present — and at least in Brown’s case — the future. It’s a notion Brown has tried to downplay, but one that has become reality after he signed a six-year extension last summer while Wallace sat at home during a lengthy holdout, the beginning of a season-long goodbye that ended with Wallace signing a $60-million free agent deal with the Dolphins.
Brown understands “guys come and go all the time” and doesn’t feel any more pressure than usual to produce now that he’s the one with the most zeroes in his contract.
“I’m just going to do whatever they ask me,” he said. “I think I’m capable of making plays. I’ve always felt that way no matter who else is playing.”
Maybe, but with Wallace gone, defenses are going to turn their attention to Brown. He lacks Wallace’s gamebreaking speed, but has remarkably soft hands and made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner in 2011 because of his ability to create havoc in the open field.
It’s a skill set that is tailor made for offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s intricate passing scheme. Brown was in the midst of a career season last fall before an ankle injury forced him to miss a significant three-week stretch in November. He returned to catch touchdown passes in each of Pittsburgh’s final four games and finished with 66 receptions for 787 yards and five scores.
Pro-rate those numbers over a full 16-game schedule and they’re Pro Bowl-caliber, though that did little to quell the disappointment of an 8-8 season.
“We know what the standard is and we didn’t meet it,” Brown said. “That goes for all of us.”
Though Brown considers himself just another guy in the receivers’ room, his teammates know he faces great expectations. Their job is to help him meet them.
“Antonio Brown, I think, is going to one of the most feared receivers in the league this year,” veteran Plaxico Burress said. “And I’m going to do everything in my power to help him get to the level where he can be an elite receiver.”
That includes making defenses pay for focusing too much on Brown. Burress returned to Pittsburgh last November hoping to give an injury-riddled passing game a boost. Instead, he struggled to get up to speed and caught only three passes.
Still, the Steelers saw enough in the 35-year-old to bring him back. Burress hopes a full offseason program will help him regain some of the rapport he enjoyed with Roethlisberger back in 2004 before he bolted for the New York Giants.
Burress stressed developing chemistry with Roethlisberger will “take time” while crediting the quarterback for being accessible.
“Ben is very easy to work with, and you can’t say that about every quarterback in this league,” Burress said. “So, if we get out on the field and go through a couple series, then we can get back to the sideline to talk about them and make adjustments.
“That’s a very important thing to do.”
Adjustments will be necessary as the Steelers try to figure out how to fit in rookies Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown along with Sanders, Burress and Jerricho Cotchery. Wheaton, a third-round pick, may be the best candidate to become the deep threat left by Wallace’s departure. Wheaton ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds before the draft, a time he considered slow.
The Steelers will have to wait to get look at Wheaton with the veterans. He won’t be able to participate in full workouts until his class at Oregon State graduates. That could give Justin Brown a chance to make an impression.
Either way, Pittsburgh insists it will be fine without Wallace. Roethlisberger will still do his thing, and the receivers expect plenty of chances to do theirs.
“We’ll miss (Wallace) on and off the field. But at the same time, we have some good guys who can run and make up for losing a really good receiver,” Cotchery said. “A.B. is the No. 1 guy now, and Emmanuel is No. 2. Everybody else fits in after that.”