By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — With three catches for 84 yards against in the preseason opener, including a dazzling 68-yard touchdown jaunt, Pittsburgh Steelers fans and coaches wanted to see more from rookie wideout Antonio Brown.
Both factions will get that chance when the Steelers face the New York Giants Saturday night at 7 at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Brown, fighting to make the team as a wide receiver, gets a chance to expand his repertoire by returning kickoffs and punts against the Giants.
“The success I had last week, it’s like a kid with a little bit of candy,” Brown said. “You just want more and more. So, I just want to continue to work hard and continue to build, and hopefully I’ll have the same results.”
Brown has worked on his special teams duties throughout the preseason, but the coaches appeared to be committed to Stefan Logan as the Steelers’ punt- and kickoff-returner.
While that still could happen, it’s becoming slightly less likely with Brown and fellow rookie Emmanuel Sanders, a third-round pick, having brilliant flashes in the passing game.
“We’re not handing out these opportunities to just anyone,” Steelers special teams coordinator Al Everest said. “They have to be earned, and these guys have earned their shots in the games. And the games are where their resumes will be built. That’s when it’s all live.”
Everest noted that while the focus is on Brown in the return game this week, Sanders is expected to get his shot in Game 3 Aug. 29 at Denver.
“You never know how many opportunities you’re going to get, so we don’t want to cheat a guy,” Everest said. “Logan is a heckuva returner, but we’ve got to find out what else do we have on this team. Because even as a backup returner, that could be a factor for Emmanuel or Antonio being available on game day versus watching in a sweatsuit.”
Logan also is listed as a receiver, and he would have no chance to make the team if that was the only option for him. And while he has considerably more experience, Brown and Emmanuel are immensely talented. And while Sanders was virtually invisible, Brown did not make any mental mistakes.
“Sure, there some things I can do better, but I didn’t have any big issues,” Brown said. “So, I think I was a good start, but I still have a long way to go. That was in the return game. I was supposed to get some action in the return game against the Lions, but that ended up not working out.
“We didn’t have too many opportunities, and my time on special teams was supposed to be after halftime. Then, after halftime (and a 73-minute delay due to lightning), they really didn’t get me any time on the teams. But I got a great deal of work on my offense at receiver.”
That’s why Brown can concentrate on his return game this week. It’s his job from the outset against the Giants, and Brown is looking forward to the opportunity. He has looked pretty sharp in practice thus far, working on punt and kickoff returns, and he really only had one drop. But that was with James Harrison barreling down on him.
“I saw him coming at me, and I took my eyes off the ball at the last minute,” Brown said. “So, that wasn’t good, but I’m trying to make sure that I look the ball all the way into the catch. In college, you didn’t have to worry about that. I could catch it while I was looking at some guys, but that’s not the case now.
“We have to make sure we are fundamentally sound and look the ball all the way in. That’s the only way to do it, and it’s the only way to gain confidence in the return game. I really had that confidence by the time I left Central Michigan, because I only dropped the ball maybe once my whole career.”
The better returners, Brown noted, can take a peak at an opposing team’s gunners bearing down on them and still make a clean catch. However, coaches put a premium on catching the ball first and foremost and then work on running it back. A good return, Brown said, ends with giving the ball to the ref.
“We need to keep the ball, so you have to catch it first and then go,” Brown said. “I’m all about making a big play, so I have to be careful that I’m not looking too far downfield. So, if I can catch it cleanly, I feel that everything else will take care of itself after that.”
It’s no wonder, because Brown said he can shift into high gear within the first five yards. So, it only takes him a couple strides to get going.
“God really blessed me some amazing quickness, so I can get to my top gear pretty quick,” Brown said. “In the return game, if you can catch the ball on the run to can have a big advantage.”
And for Brown, that might be all he needs to take a kick back all the way. When he reached the end zone after his 67-yard catch and run against the Lions, Brown capped it by dunking the ball over the cross bar.
“My teammates liked it, but they pretty much wanted to see me celebrate with the team,” Brown said. “It was my first one, and I got too excited. I took my helmet off, but I’ll probably be a lot more humble the next time.”
And with Brown’s immense talent, next time could turn out to be quite often.