AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH — Antonio Brown leaned back in his locker recently and allowed himself a brief moment of introspection.
Fresh off the most productive three season stretch by a wide receiver in NFL history, a run that has garnered the Pittsburgh Steelers star a pair of first-team All-Pro selections while feeding social media a steady stream of GIF-worthy open field moves and touchdown celebrations, Brown listened as someone rattled off the list of Hall of Famers whose numbers he has somehow topped.
“I am the best though, right?” Brown said in a way best described as a humblebrag. “Guys haven’t done what I’ve done. But we don’t want to talk about that. We always want to grow. Growing is never-ending.”
Even when it hurts.
Brown will miss the first playoff game of his career on Sunday when the Steelers travel to Denver in the divisional round. The four-time Pro Bowler and one of the league’s most electric players is out with a concussion sustained in the final minute of last week’s wild-card win over Cincinnati. The injury deprives the Steelers of their MVP against the league’s best defense, one he lit up for 189 yards and two touchdowns in a comeback victory a month ago.
Yet the Steelers insist they can get by without him. Having an apparently healthy-ish Ben Roethlisberger helps. The quarterback is officially questionable with a sprained right shoulder but threw the ball well in practice on Friday, according to teammates. It also helps to have a group of receivers who have spent their time in Pittsburgh absorbing what they can from one of the most meticulous preparers in the league.
“We’ve all leaned on him in the past, but it creates an opportunity for us,” Markus Wheaton said Friday.
One Pittsburgh hasn’t had to face since a sprained ankle forced Brown to skip three games in 2012. Back then he was an overachieving sixth-round draft pick. Now he’s arguably one of the NFL’s most unguardable threats, his combination of speed — Brown runs with the intensity of a 6-year-old chasing down an ice-cream truck — hands and body control makes any one-on-one matchup with him borderline unfair. Look for no further than 355 receptions since the start of the 2013 season as proof.
Heading to Denver without him is less than ideal, yet it’s a challenge Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates believe they’re ready to embrace. None of them have played a game in Pittsburgh without Brown. Not having his familiar No. 84 in the huddle will be weird. It won’t be the end of the world.
“To not see him be there with us, we’ve got to do some bigger things that we haven’t done before to show him that we’ve got his back,” said Coates, a rookie who caught all of one pass in limited playing time.
In that sense, Brown’s own development has hastened the maturity of the rest of the group. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley requires each of Pittsburgh’s receivers to learn every route from every position so they’re prepared when he finds something he wants to exploit. Sometimes that means putting Brown in the slot. Sometimes it means putting him in the backfield or in motion at the snap. The Steelers expect that constant tinkering to help minimize the inevitable drop-off.
“Everybody knows where to be and how to do everything,” Heyward-Bey said. “When somebody goes down, it’s not like, ‘Oh no, what do we do?’”
And Brown’s supporting cast can occasionally be spectacular in its own right.
The 6-foot-4 Bryant is a physically raw marvel, his somersaulting touchdown grab last week against Cincinnati in which he somehow pinned the ball between his legs as he careened out of the end zone a symbol of what he can do when he’s mentally and physically engaged. Wheaton is proving to be a steady complement to Brown, putting up 201 yards against Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” in November.
The “No Fly Zone” awaits in Denver this weekend, though the Broncos remain wary even with Brown no longer in the mix.
“They still got a bunch of speed, a bunch of talented guys on the field,” Denver cornerback Aqib Talib said. “And they still got Ben Roethlisberger. So, we know we’ve still got to do our part.”
Pittsburgh doesn’t expect the Broncos to revamp its game plan just because Brown won’t be a factor. That’s fine by the Steelers, who have gotten used to adjusting without bold-faced names all year.
All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey hasn’t played a snap since August. Roethlisberger missed a month with a sprained left knee. Running back Le’Veon Bell has been gone since the day after Halloween and replacement DeAngelo Williams is out at least another week with a busted right foot. As head coach Mike Tomlin repeats over and over again, “the standard is the standard” even without the receiver who sets the standard.
Besides, in the two weeks this season when Brown was held in check — in Week 5 against San Diego and Week 6 against Arizona when he managed a total of six receptions— the Steelers still found a way to win.
“We’ve got a great offense, a great team,” Heyward-Bey said. “We understand that hey, we’ve got to go out there and play ball.”
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed to this report.