Brown nears return as Steelers get set for rematch
PITTSBURGH — Even as he sat in the back of a police car sprinting to the hospital to get a precise prognosis on his injured left calf while the Pittsburgh Steelers played on without him during a loss to New England three weeks ago, Antonio Brown always believed he’d be back.
He just needed time.
When his teammates provided it by assuring the AFC North champions of a first-round bye, Brown pushed his rehab.
By last weekend video surfaced of Brown working out in Florida with former NFL wide receiver Chad Ochocinco.
And there Brown was on Monday, going through drills with the rest of the Steelers well on track for a return on Sunday against Jacksonville in the divisional round of the playoffs.
“I never count myself out regardless of circumstances,” Brown said. “I know playing football you’re going to have adversity. Just got to grow from it.”
While stressing he’s “still got a lot to test,” the only unanimous selection on the 2017 All-Pro Team and the only player in NFL history with five straight seasons with at least 100 receptions appeared to be relatively close to his old self.
“AB is nice,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “If he’s out there, I expect him to be AB. He’s not going to be out there limping around. When he was running, he looked pretty good. You never know how it’s going to feel afterward, but while he’s out there, while he’s running his routes, he looked like AB.”
Brown left in the first half against New England on Dec. 17 when his legs got tangled with a pair of Patriots defenders while trying to haul in a touchdown pass.
The Steelers lost 27-23 before rebounding to close out the regular season with wins over Houston and Cleveland.
Still, their best chance at reaching the AFC championship game for a second consecutive season comes with Brown’s No. 84 in the lineup.
The Jaguars have one of the NFL’s top defensive backfields, though Brown still finished with 10 receptions and 157 yards on Oct. 8, the lone bright spot for the Steelers in a 30-9 loss in which Jacksonville scored the final 23 points and left Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shaken after throwing five interceptions.
Roethlisberger hasn’t shied away from talk of a rematch. That’s fine by the Jaguars.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Jacksonville cornerback AJ Bouye said. “This is what he wanted. This is what he’s going to get.”
What the Steelers are likely to get in return is a heavy dose of Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette.
He was dominant with 181 yards and two touchdowns against Pittsburgh in October, including a backbreaking 90-yard sprint with 1:47 left that showcased the speed and the power that makes him so dangerous. Jacksonville finished with 231 yards rushing in all, the most given up by the Steelers all season.
It was perhaps the biggest upset in the NFL season at the time. In the rearview, not so much. The Jaguars have proven they’re legit while reaching the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
Though Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey suggested Pittsburgh must feel like the loss was a “fluke,” the Steelers insist that’s not the case.
“We don’t feel like it was a fluke,” linebacker Bud Dupree said. “We actually saw the plays they made and everything that was going on and the mistakes that we made and … that’s what happens. We let them get a couple of explosion plays.”
Yet Steelers safety Mike Mitchell is quick to point out the blowout on the scoreboard didn’t exactly reflect what happened on the field. Even with Fournette’s closeout dash to the end zone, Pittsburgh outgained the Jaguars 373-313.
“If you watch that football game, it’s not like their offense exploited us a ton,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think it was a dominant performance from that standpoint. I thought we played well enough to win the game. Obviously we didn’t. We’ve got to do better Sunday as a complete team to win the game.”
One of the reasons Roethlisberger wanted another shot at Jacksonville. The two-time Super Bowl winner facetiously wondered if he still “had it” after turning the ball over repeatedly back in October.
All he did over the second half of the season was throw 18 touchdowns against five interceptions while leading Pittsburgh to a second straight division title and fourth consecutive playoff appearance.
Roethlisberger’s swagger is back. And with Brown nearing a return, the Steelers believe they’re three wins away from a seventh Lombardi Trophy regardless of who may stand in the way.
“(Got to) find a way to win this one,” Brown said, “and then the next one and the next one.”