PITTSBURGH — Darrius Heyward-Bey wants to get something out of the way about the latest addition to Antonio Brown’s rapidly expanding highlight reel. It wasn’t a toe tap. It was a toe drag.
The difference isn’t semantic. It’s vital. And one of the many reasons Heyward-Bey believes his Pittsburgh Steelers teammate is separating himself from every other wide receiver in the NFL.
If Brown tried to tap his feet while coming down with a 23-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger that set up teammate Chris Boswell’s winning field goal on the final play last Sunday against Green Bay, Brown would have been out of bounds. Brown knows this because he preaches it every day in practice. So Brown lifted his right foot off the ground and had it scrape the grass as he planted his left foot on the very edge of the playing field.
“When he went for the ball there was no ‘let me see if my feet got in, let me see,'” Heyward-Bey said. “It was ‘Hey, if I drag it, I’m in. I’ve got to focus on this rock.”
Still, even Heyward-Bey figured Brown’s left foot was out. Then he watched Brown and knew he was in without having to wait for the officials to figure it out or check the replay on the massive scoreboard.
One play later, a more conventional 14-yard reception — Brown’s league-leading 80th — against absolutely baffled Green Bay cornerback Kevin King helped the AFC North-leading Steelers (9-2) extend their winning streak to six. It also sent social media aflame with goat emojis that sparked discussion on whether the 5-foot-10, 180-pound former sixth-round pick is the Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T.).
It’s a conversation Brown has no interest in joining.
“It’s tremendous when guys talk about me in that light,” said Brown, who missed Friday’s practice with a toe injury. “But I’ve got a long way to go.”
Maybe, but the journey appears to be getting shorter. At 29, he tops the league in yards receiving and is on pace for his fifth straight season of 100-plus receptions, something that’s never been done before. Not by Jerry Rice. Not by Randy Moss. Not by Marvin Harrison. Not by anybody.
During a year in which Roethlisberger has wondered aloud about his own effectiveness before a recent resurgence, and running back Le’Veon Bell got off to a slow start after sitting out training camp, it’s not farfetched to consider Brown a fringe MVP candidate, an award no receiver has claimed. While the MVP is almost certain to go to seemingly ageless Tom Brady or Philadelphia’s second-year prodigy Carson Wentz, Brown is working his way into the discussion one remarkable grab at a time.
“You’re in the midst of someone in their prime,” Heyward-Bey said. “That’s what makes it amazing to watch.”
Steelers linebacker Vince Williams took it a step further, calling Brown the best “X” receiver under 6-foot ever.
“He’s awesome,” said Williams, whose locker has been next to Brown’s during Brown’s transition from project to franchise cornerstone.
When it’s pointed out that most players who reach the NFL are awesome in some aspect of the game or they never would have gotten there, Williams raises his voice.
“We use that word too loosely,” Williams said. “But compared to like professionals, they’re not awesome. They’re good. He’s awesome.”
There is one thing, however, that most of the company Brown wants to keep has that he does not: a Super Bowl ring. This season might provide him with his best opportunity. And for all the occasional diva eccentricities — from the water cooler toss in Baltimore in October that irritated Roethlisberger to his fashion-forward postgame suits — Brown’s commitment level never changes.
It’s not unusual for him to send a teammate a text after his kids go to bed to see if they’re up for a late workout. It’s not unusual for him to pull out the JUGGS machine he keeps at his house so he can get some drills. It’s not unusual for him to request a series of increasingly difficult throws during the individual portions of practice so he can mimic what he may encounter during a game.
Brown plays with a swagger and competitiveness that bely his height. Steelers cornerback Artie Burns admits he was kind of shocked the first time he found himself across from Brown during organized team activities as a rookie in the spring of 2016.
“The way he plays is bigger than he is,” Burns said. “You automatically think he’s 5-11 or 6-foot, a good height. He’s not short. He’s just undersized. But his aggression for the ball, that’s what sets him apart.”
And it’s one of the reasons Roethlisberger will fling it Brown’s way almost reflexively regardless of how many bodies are between Brown and the ball.
“He may be 5-10, 5-11 in stature, but he plays 6-4,” said Steelers defensive back Coty Sensabaugh, who faced Brown while playing for Tennessee and the New York Giants before signing with Pittsburgh last spring. “He has the strength of a big guy. You see him stiff-arming people all the time and breaking tackles and running by people. He does it all.”
To think, the Steelers initially offered the contract Brown signed in 2012 to Mike Wallace. Wallace turned it down hoping to cash in on the free agent market. While Wallace has enjoyed a decent career, he’s not heading for Canton. Brown appears to be on his way.
“The (Steelers) knew who was better, let’s just be honest,” Heyward-Bey said. “Mike’s my guy. … We know who’s better.”