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Lost in Steelers' 1-4 Start Is Antonio Brown's Impressive Season

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 13: Wide receiver Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers attempts to avoid the tackle of defensive back Darrin Walls #30 of the New York Jets on October 13, 2013 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Andrea HangstContributor IIJanuary 8, 2017

The Pittsburgh Steelers picked up their first win of the season on Sunday, defeating the New York Jets, 16-9. 

It wasn't a commanding victory and it wasn't without its mistakes. However, the Steelers were able to do two things—generate Jets turnovers without turning over the ball themselves and build and protect a 10-point lead—which led to the end of their four-game losing streak.

Much has been said about the Steelers' struggles through the early part of the season.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 13: Running Back Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers gets tackled by safety Antonio Allen #39 of the New York Jets on October 13, 2013 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty I
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

They haven't started this poorly since 1968. The run game has yet to break the 100-yard mark this year. The offensive line is among the league's worst, resulting in 19 sacks of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The defense hasn't generated much pass rush, with just four sacks on the season before getting to Jets quarterback Geno Smith three times on Sunday.

Lost in the din of the disappointment are the Steelers players who are doing things right. And one of those players is wide receiver Antonio Brown, who has seemingly stepped up and tried to put the entire team on his back. 

Coming into the 2013 season, Brown knew the pressure on him would be high. Without Mike Wallace, Brown needed to become the top Steelers receiver, and he was given a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension last summer with the anticipation he could do so. The knee injury suffered by tight end Heath Miller last December also meant Brown's responsibilities would be expanded this year, at least for the first quarter of the season.

This presented the perfect situation for Brown to show off his value to the Steelers or to fail to rise to the occasion. Fortunately for both the Steelers and Brown, he's done nothing but the former through the first five games.

Brown is Pittsburgh's leading receiver with 41 catches on 53 targets for 498 yards, two touchdowns, 182 yards after the catch and only one drop. He's tops in Pittsburgh in first downs, with 27 so far. His 77 percent catch rate and his single drop on the year has made him Pro Football Focus' top receiver through six weeks (subscription required). 

Against the Jets, Brown was a standout. He caught 9-of-11 passes thrown to him for 86 yards. He had five of Pittsburgh's 11 passing first downs and was able to draw a pass interference penalty on Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie that took the Steelers from their own 38 to New York's 37-yard line. Three of Brown's catches also led the Steelers to their three second-quarter field goals that established a lead they wouldn't give up once.

At 5'10" and 186 pounds, Brown isn't the biggest receiver in the NFL and he's not the strongest, nor the most physical. What he possesses, however, is speed, sure hands and the ability to extend plays down the field just as Roethlisberger is extending the play behind the line of scrimmage. 

Brown is able to weave around the field while coverage breaks down. While Roethlisberger escapes from pass-rushers, Brown can evade cornerbacks and safeties with his speed. It's no coincidence that Brown has seen many a target from Roethlisberger on third downs.

Generally, third-down situations produce the most pressure on quarterbacks. Roethlisberger is hard to bring down, but he can only work his magic if there's a reliable receiver open once he finally can replant his feet and throw. And more often than not, that receiver has been Brown.

Brown is also useful in the screen game. He can use his speed and quick change-of-direction to his advantage in these situations. He showed this off on Sunday against the Jets, gaining 16 yards on a 3rd-and-15 by way of a quick screen that negated New York's defensive pressure.

Thirty-one of Brown's 50 targets and 27 of his 41 catches have come on passes thrown between the 9-yard line and behind the line of scrimmage, and it's because the Steelers know he can create big gains out of short throws. 

He can also be good for a trick play or two, as we also saw against the Jets. On a 1st-and-10 at the Jets' 33-yard line, Roethlisberger tossed the football backwards to Brown, who then completed a pass to Steelers running back Felix Jones that went 15 yards.

Though the drive ended with a field goal rather than a touchdown, Pittsburgh's creative thinking and Brown's willingness to do whatever it takes to move the football down the field produced a positive play.

Brown looks like a different player this year. The big paycheck and relative job security handed to him in 2012 hasn't led to Brown taking plays off, working less hard or refusing to fight for yards. He's clearly seen how his team, and particularly his offense, has struggled to start the year and he's clearly proving that whatever problems do exist, he's not one of them.

While there are still areas in which the Steelers must improve—the offensive line and the run game are still particularly in trouble, the defense has had problems with missed tackles and the pass rush is still a work in progress—there are bright spots on the roster. On offense, none has shined more than Brown. He's taken the Steelers' 1-4 start as a source of personal motivation and the need to turn things around as his own responsibility.

Brown is playing inspired football and Pittsburgh's last-place standing in the AFC North cannot take that away.

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