I guess Antonio Brown was right when he said he wanted the ball more during a sideline confrontation with offensive coordinator Todd Haley in a Week 2 contest in Cincinnati.
Of course, all receivers complain they're not getting targeted enough, so that's not much of a surprise. However, in the case of Brown, an action that many would consider selfish may have actually helped the team (or at least the offense) because Pittsburgh has scored 20 points or more in the past seven games after only doing so three times in the first seven.
As for Brown, the sixth round pick out of Central Michigan in 2010 is having a career year, complete with 95 receptions for 1307 and eight touchdowns. Brown's contributions will obviously lead him to his second Pro Bowl at the end of the season. And despite being slight in stature (5' 10" and 186 lbs) he may be on the cusp of true super-stardom and could soon find himself talked about in the same breath as a Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald.
Brown's season is noteworthy for many reasons, but chief among them is that 2013 marks his first campaign as Pittsburgh's designated No.1 receiver after former Steeler Mike Wallace held that role for a number of years.
It was a role that Brown was destined to fill after Wallace departed via free agency following the 2012 season. Some people were wary of Brown's ascension to the top of the receiver depth chart (after all it is a rather lofty position for a smallish former sixth round draft choice), but after the Steelers inked him to a $43 million contract extension a year earlier, there wasn't much doubt the team would be down with Brown in 2013.
Obviously, with the season Brown is having, the front office isn't regretting that extension, one bit.
Is Brown a true number one wide receiver? In terms of production, he is, but in terms physical stature, some would say he isn't. However, Hines Ward spent many legendary years as the Steelers most productive receiver, and his stature was such that he was dubbed "Papa Smurf" during the latter stages of his career as the leader of Pittsburgh's corps of diminutive receivers.
It's debatable whether or not Haley's scheme requires a deep-threat on par with a Wallace or a physically dominant pass-catcher along the same lines as a Megatron, but there is no doubt that the Steelers, 14-16 in their last 30 games and destined to miss the postseason for the second straight year, absolutely need building blocks for a future championship foundation.
When most people think of a championship core, they think of a franchise quarterback, maybe a left tackle, and of course, a dominant defensive front seven.
Diminutive receivers don't normally come to mind.
But the last time the Steelers missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons--1998-2000--Ward was a part of those teams, and I sure couldn't have predicted he would become a critical building block to the Super Bowl teams of the previous decade and go on to become the most decorated receiver in team history--including 1000 career receptions, over 12000 receiving yards and a Super Bowl MVP trophy.
I was at the game on Sunday, and Brown contributed my favorite moment of the 2013 season, when he broke into the clear near mid-field and went on to score on a dazzling 67 yard punt return in Pittsburgh's 30-20 victory over the Bengals. Brown is not only a great receiver, he's a play-maker, capable of changing a game many different ways.
Considering the comparisons between the two receivers, it's probably fitting that, with two games left in the regular season, Brown has more than an outside shot of breaking Ward's single-season record for receptions (112).
It's times like these, when a team is struggling, where you must look at individual players and how they could factor into a team's future.
Like Ward did early in his career, Antonio Brown is emerging as one the of the bright spots of a Steelers franchise that is struggling. And like Ward, before him, Brown figures to be a shining part of any championship future Pittsburgh may have.