Antonio Brown looks ‘electric’ in return to Steelers practice
His left leg buckled so awkwardly, he needed two medical personnel to help him off the field. The first half wasn’t over, and he was whisked away in a police car to a hospital for further testing.
An MRI didn’t reveal a break, but it showed a contusion on his lower leg that his coach called “significant” and could have ended his season prematurely.
Still, wide receiver Antonio Brown never feared the worst — that the calf injury he suffered against the New England Patriots would keep him from rejoining the Steelers in the AFC playoffs.
“I never count myself out regardless of circumstances,” Brown said Monday afternoon. “I know that playing football you’re going to have adversity, and you just have to grow from it.”
Three weeks and one day after his regular season was cut short, Brown returned to practice at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and, by his own admission, participated in “most” of the offensive drills.
The Steelers play the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, and Brown, the only unanimous choice among NFL All-Pro selections, is expected to be a part of the game plan.
“We’ll see,” Brown said, smiling. “I’m not trying to measure things and give you guys a synopsis of how I’m going to be. If I’m out there, I’m going to give the team my all and be who I am. I can’t change who I am. Just be my best self.”
Brown certainly was that during the regular season, leading the NFL with 1,533 receiving yards and catching at least 100 passes for an NFL-record fifth year in a row — despite spending the final two and a half games out of the lineup.
According to teammates, Brown’s route-running and precision in practice Monday didn’t look much different than from before his injury.
“He looked good to me,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “He was coming out of his breaks and catching everything.”
Then again, Haden expected nothing less.
“If he’s out there, I expect for him to be AB,” Haden said. “He’s not going to be out there just gimping around. He was running, he looked pretty good. You never know how it’s going to feel afterward, but while he was out there and running his routes, he looked like AB.”
With the players having Tuesday off, Brown will have a day to recover from the workout. The Steelers practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in preparation for the divisional-round game at Heinz Field against the Jaguars.
“We’ll see how it goes and the week progresses,” Brown said. “I feel I was able to go through practice, and I still could get a little better, but it feels good to be out there.”
Running back Le’Veon Bell isn’t fooled by the rhetoric. He expects Brown to start against the Jaguars.
“He wouldn’t want to miss a playoff game for the end of the world,” Bell said. “I know he’s going to work hard to get back on the field, and I think he’ll be there.”
In Week 5 against the Jaguars, Brown was targeted 19 times and had 10 catches for 157 yards. But Ben Roethlisberger, perhaps focusing on Brown too much, threw five interceptions. Two were returned for touchdowns and the Steelers lost, 30-9.
“We have to find a way to win,” Brown said. “It’s all that matters right now.”
Without Brown in the lineup against Houston and Cleveland, the Steelers won both games to secure a first-round playoff bye. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 15 catches for 218 yards and two touchdowns, and Martavis Bryant caught nine passes for 125 yards in the two games.
“The young guys did a great job stepping up and making some plays and buying me some time with the victory and the bye week,” Brown said. “Those guys were really dynamic putting points on the board.”
During the bye weekend, Brown headed to Florida and worked out with former NFL receiver Chad Johnson, who took video of the sessions and posted it to Instagram. That was the latest indication that Brown’s return to the Steelers was near.
“I always call him to the field when I’m training to get some fundamental work,” Brown said. “I wanted to let him see me cut. It was the first time I was cutting in a while. I brought him to the field and let me see my movements.”
On Monday, it was the Steelers’ turn to see Brown’s movements, and players came away impressed.
“He looked like Antonio Brown,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “He was electric, fast, quick … He’s an unbelievable player. To have him out on the field is a sense of comfort. A lot of guys were excited to see him out there.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.