Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers preview the Lions-Steelers game on this week's Lions Lowdown.
Allen Park — Business is boomin’ for Antonio Brown. Then again, it’s been boomin’ for some time for the Pittsburgh Steelers star wide receiver and former Central Michigan standout.
He’s been named to four consecutive Pro Bowls and three straight All-Pro teams. He’s twice led the league in receptions, once in receiving yardage and he’s topping the NFL in both categories seven weeks into this season.
Brown’s 52 catches for 765 yards are both currently pacing the league, and there’s something of a chasm between him and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, who is second in yardage, with 545.
Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell, another local product, out of Michigan State, have consistently made the Steelers one the league’s most potent offenses.
“We expect our A players to play ‘A’ as they say,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Those guys are being consistent, positive, contributors to our efforts. But that’s what come to be expected from them. I think they do a nice job of wearing those expectations and really wanting to be central figures. I think it’s within the personality of both of those guys, and I think it’s one of the reasons why they’re unique contributors.“
What makes Brown elite is his well-rounded skill set. He’s not a receiver that does one or two things well, he seemingly does everything well.
“Antonio is always an explosive guy,” safety Glover Quin said. “Get him the ball, he can make things happen. Screen passes, he can beat you deep, he runs great routes.”
The 5-foot-10, 181-pounder is equally lethal on short throws as he is running deep routes. He leads all receivers in yards after the catch, which speaks volumes for his elusiveness in the open field and puts a premium on tackling in the secondary. He also puts his jets to good use taking the top off the defense.
And the Steelers love to test opposing defenses vertically. Brown has been targeted deep — passes at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage — 20 times, more than anyone in the league.
“Just a different kind of individual because of the fact that he’s got unbelievable speed, just a world-class speed in that regard, just can flat go,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “But then also he’s quick as you could possibly think a receiver should be. I mean he can stop on a dime, adjust, change direction when (quarterback) Big Ben (Roethlisberger) is biding time, he finds open areas.
“He can make you miss. He can run away from you. I mean he can do it all.”
The Lions are expected to counter with Darius Slay. The typically bombastic cornerback downplayed individual matchup and declined to confirm he’d shadow Brown, but given the team’s usage of their top cover option, that’s more than likely going to be part of the game plan.
“Yeah, we had him up here in training camp last year,” Brown told Pittsburgh reporters on Friday. “Great corner, top corner, great competitor. …Looking forward to seeing a lot of him coming this weekend.”
Slay has faced a gauntlet of top receivers this season, from Julio Jones to Odell Beckham to Michael Thomas to Kelvin Benjamin, and with each of those matchups, he’s generally followed them, instead of sticking to the left side of the field, like he normally would.
Slay is off to a good start this year, as well. He admittedly had a few breakdowns against Benjamin, conceding a long touchdown on a tightly covered deep ball, and getting outmuscled for the game-sealing third down, but individually, he’s held each of those four top-tier receivers to an average of three catches and 35 yards. Benjamin is the only one who scored.
“I think I’ve been playing pretty solid, doing my job just as the coaches need me to do,” Slay said. “They’re satisfied and I’m very satisfied. I’m going to keep climbing and help this team keep winning.”
Slay leads the Lions with eight pass defenses and three interceptions. He will have his work cut out for him Sunday night. Brown has been targeted at least nine times in each of the first seven games and has topped 100 yards in four of those contests.
“There ain’t much I can say that y’all don’t already know,” Slay said. “He’s a very exciting player, very important to his team and a serious game-changer.”
If Slay can keep that game-changing ability in check, if he can slow down Brown's boomin' business, it would go a long way toward the Lions being able to knock off the Steelers, snap a two-game losing streak, and keep pace in the wide-open NFC North race.