Published January 19, 2011
PITTSBURGH – The first time Antonio Brown officially touched the football as an NFL player, he took it 89 yards for a touchdown.
Knowing that, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he made arguably the biggest play in his first playoff game.
Brown burst onto the national scene Saturday with a timely and creative 58-yard reception on 3rd and 19 that set up the Steelers' winning touchdown vs. the Ravens. He beat his defender with speed down the sideline, and hauled in a Ben Roethlisberger pass.
Then came the tricky part. He held on to it as veteran teammate Hines Ward said, between "the Steelers emblem (on his helmet) and his right hand."
Brown is not a familiar face — in part because he wasn't even active for seven of Pittsburgh's first 11 games — but he is quickly making a name for himself, as the Steelers (13-4) prepare for the New York Jets (13-5).
Of course, that's in national circles. To Brown's teammates, though, they never doubted him.
"I've always felt like that," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "It's not like this just came after one catch that he made. Antonio's proved himself every day in practice, day in and day out. There's not a day that goes by that we don't believe we can't put him in a game because he does it in practice every single day."
Brown has a history of performing at his best on big stages. He had season highs in receptions during bowls at the end of each of his final two years at Central Michigan. He then left after his junior season, becoming a sixth-round pick.
Then there's his first regular-season NFL game, Sept. 19 at Tennessee. Mewelde Moore fielded the opening kickoff and handed off to Brown, a two-time All-Mid-American Conference selection. He ran it 89 yards for what ended up being Pittsburgh's only touchdown. The Steelers won, 19-11.
"That's what he does," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He makes plays."
Brown, obviously, was disappointed he fell in the draft. But, hey, being on the Steelers isn't all that bad, right?
"The pieces fit together so well," Brown said. "Just being part of something that's bigger than us. Coming to this organization and getting to know great people. I'm just thankful to be a part of it."
Hard to blame him. Brown, after all, joined a team that had won a Super Bowl 14 months prior. And he also was lucky enough to have an established receiving corps that could help his development.
Not only did he have veteran mentors, like Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El, to work with, he also had a built-in confidant of sorts in third-round pick Emmanual Sanders. The two bonded at the draft combine before they even knew they'd be teammates. And then, there was Wallace, who had just finished his first year, and could show them the ropes.
It's all added up to a season to remember for both Brown and Sanders.
"We've been impressed with these young men from Day 1," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "That's why we pushed them in the manner in which we did. We knew that they were capable of providing splash plays for us, plays that could help us win. It's become pretty clear that they're up for the task."
Brown had 14 of his 16 receptions this season over the final five games, then had three catches for 75 yards in Saturday's win against Baltimore. He's also become the top return man.
"He does a phenomenal job when he gets the ball in his hands," Ward said. "He's very explosive, so we try to get him out in space."
Brown and Sanders are part of a rookie class that also includes center Maurkice Pouncey, who was selected for the Pro Bowl. The surprising early strong play of that group is part of the reason why the Steelers are not only a title threat this year, but for years to come.
"We've got a great sense of veteran leadership and as young guys, we want to make a statement for those guys," Brown said. "We don't want to just be here playing around and be looked upon as goofy guys. We want to put our hands in the pile and take this team to their destiny, and that's the Super Bowl."