PITTSBURGH — Antonio Brown keeps insisting he didn’t get into it with Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley on the sidelines during a loss to Cincinnati last month.
He’s also not complaining that the reported exchange between the two had a ripple effect on the playcalling. Both men claim the exchange didn’t actually happen, in fact.
“I never went to Todd and said anything, but whoever created that buzz, maybe created something positive,” Brown said.
It certainly created something positive for Brown.
Whether it’s a coincidence or not, Brown’s production has skyrocketed entering Sunday’s showdown with Baltimore (3-3). His 30 receptions over the past three games are tied for the most prolific stretch by a wide receiver in team history.
And though it’s still early, he’s on pace to smash Hines Ward’s club record of 112 catches in 2002.
No wonder Brown talks as if any hatchet — be it real or imaginary — between he and Haley has been buried deep underneath the Heinz Field turf.
“Todd’s going to use every guy in this locker room to the best of their ability to exploit defenses and help win games for our team,” Brown said. “So, I just think he’s giving me more opportunities and putting me in a good position to be successful.”
It’s a position Brown never doubted he’d reach after signing a six-year, $42 million contract extension in 2012 at the same time Pro Bowl standout Mike Wallace was holding out for a new deal that never materialized.
Wallace departed for Miami via free agency last spring, leaving little doubt to who stood atop the depth chart heading into 2013. If there was any uncertainty, Brown erased it when he rolled into training camp in a Rolls Royce replete with a buddy serving as the chauffeur.
The car might have been all in good fun — Brown spoofing himself as a prima donna — but there was little fun to be had in dismal losses to Tennessee and Cincinnati. Whether he spoke up about his role or not after catching 11 passes through the first two weeks, hardly pedestrian numbers, Brown has spent the last month blossoming into Roethlisberger’s favorite target.
He pulled in nine passes for a career-high 196 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Chicago. He caught 12 passes a week later against Minnesota and added nine more for 86 yards in a 19-6 win over the New York Jets that snapped Pittsburgh’s freefall from an 0-4 start.
“We all know he’s capable and we’ve been looking forward to this time,” veteran wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “We know he could be the lead dog.”
One that is adding new wrinkles to his game all the time.
Unlike most No. 1 receivers, Brown had to work his way into a starting role. He spent his first three seasons slowly ascending the depth chart, rising from sixth-round draft choice to Pro Bowl kick returner to budding star. That experience allows Haley to use Brown in a variety of formations.
On one play, he’s lined up wide. The next, he’s in the slot. The next he’s in motion. He even completed a pass against the Jets, finding Emmanuel Sanders for a 15-yard gain. He also took a sack, one of the few times he failed to create space in the open field.
“I got caught up in a Big Ben moment,” Brown said. “I didn’t realize those guys would be so close while I was looking downfield.”
He always is, one of the reasons the Steelers had no problem letting Wallace walk.
“When Mike left, he knew he had an opportunity to step into that role and he’s embraced it and he’s worked hard and he’s making plays,” Haley said. “That’s tough when you are the guy because that’s the guy that generally sees some of the double coverage we’re seeing in the games.”
It hardly seems an issue at the moment. If teams try to bump Brown at the line he’ll take a step back for a quick screen pass then work on a double-move to get deep on the next snap.
Despite being just 5-foot-10, Brown’s teammates marvel at his ability to attack the football regardless of who is around him.
“I was joking with him last week about his vision, what is his vision?” Cotchery said. “Because it seems like you know when the ball is in the air, he doesn’t know what’s going on around him. He’s just locked on the ball ... and when he gets the ball in his hands, good luck tackling him.”