By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — If Antonio Brown was playing somewhat under the radar going into this NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers second-year wideout certainly should be more than just a blip now.
Brown, who ended his rookie year as the club’s No. 4 wide receiver, has pushed for more so far this year and had another big game in the Steelers 34-16 win against the Atlanta Falcons in preseason Game 3 Saturday night at Heinz Field.
Brown returned the opening kickoff 51 yards and might have gone farther if not for an illegal horse-collar tackle that tacked on 15 yards. He also caught two long touchdown passes in the first half from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“There was great blocking, and the lane opened up,” Brown said. “And all I had to do was run. It was a short field with me and the kicker, and he made a great tackle on me. The horse-collar got us a flag and got us some more yards.”
The first score snapped a 10-10 deadlock and went for 77 yards. Brown beat the Falcons deep coverage across the middle and ran untouched into the end zone. Unfortunately, Brown received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting, as he pointed his finger at the burned pursuit trailing the play.
Brown also hauled in a 44-yard scoring pass from Roethlisberger during the Steelers’ two-minute drill that gave his team a 24-16 halftime advantage. On third-and-10, Brown ran a post that beat Atlanta cornerback Dominique Franks and safety Thomas DeCoud.
“It’s a blessing,” Brown said about his two touchdown catches. “I’ll just continue to get better and improve day-in and day-out. You can see the results just pan out.”
Brown finished the first half with four catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns. He also returned four kickoffs for 109 yards (27.25 average) and fair caught the only punt to him.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan had a big day in just a half’s work, as he was 22-for-42 for 220 yards and a 10-yard touchdown toss to Roddy White. But he also was picked off by Lawrence Timmons, who returned it 44 yards to the 4.
“I think we should have finished a little better,” Timmons said about the No. 1 defense’s performance. “Me, personally, I feel like I got a little tired toward the end, and I feel like I could have done a whole lot more.
“But this is a test to see where I’m at as far as physical conditioning, and I feel like I can do some more work. It’s just a starting point, and it’s the preseason. So, I’m going to get through this game, look at the film and work harder.”
Two runs by Rashard Mendenhall netted zero yards. There also was a two-yard pass to Hines Ward, but Shaun Suisham was forced to kick a 19-yard field goal.
Roethlisberger was sharp again with 11 completions in 16 attempts for 214 yards and two touchdowns to Brown. He was sacked twice, but not picked off and had a stellar 151 quarterback rating. After Brown’s 51-yard opening kickoff return and 15-yard penalty, Roethlisberger hit backup tight end David Johnson for a pair of 17-yard gains to the 1. Mendenhall plowed in from there.
“It felt good,” Mendenhall said. “The offensive line did a great job. They created a hole and a seam. That’s something we want to do at the goal line. It was a good way to score on the opening drive.”
Dennis Dixon played in the fourth quarter and led a long drive that ended at the 9. Swayze Waters kicked a 27-yard field goal to set the final score. The drive was 11 plays and 68 yards in 5:14 and included 28-yard run by Jonathan Dwyer, 10-yard scramble by Dixon and a couple nice passes. But he was pressured and missed tight end John Gilmore in the end zone on third down.
Along with Ryan’s scoring pass, the Falcons got field goals from Matt Bryant for 23, 30 and 46 yards.
The Steelers also had a handful of injuries. Maurkice Pouncey injured his left ankle again on third down after the Timmons pick midway through the first quarter. Rookie outside linebacker Chris Carter (hamstring) and cornerback Keenan Lewis (left knee) also were injured during the first half.
Second-year player Crezdon Butler benefitted from the Lewis injury, as he played the second, third and into the fourth quarter. On the first play in the fourth, with the Falcons in the red zone, Butler picked off a Chris Redman pass at the 5 and returned it 95 yards for a touchdown.
Other key injuries for the Steelers were to nose tackle Casey Hampton, who suffered a right arm injury early in the second half, while backup quarterback Byron Leftwich broke his left arm during a six-yard scramble run when he landed on it.