In the 72 hours or so after their first loss since September, it appeared as if Team Turmoil might be creeping its way back as the unofficial identity of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Instead of luring it back in, though, Antonio Brown on Friday went the over-the-top philosophical route to stomp out any lingering narratives of a rift developing between either his quarterback or his understudy running mate at receiver.
“In the world we live in today, I think controversy is celebrated a lot,” Brown said when questioned about Ben Roethlisberger’s criticisms of him and JuJu Smith-Schuster’s better production than him. “People try to put people against each other, bring people down. But we all need each other. There’s power in unity and people coming together, and not in people fighting and bringing each other down.”
But, Antonio, your quarterback publicly criticized your route-running on the deciding play of last Sunday’s loss at Denver, openly expressed he wanted to throw to Smith-Schuster on every play and refused to anoint you the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver – a title you’ve held for a half a decade. In your first public comments since Roethlisberger said all that, how do you respond?
“It’s not personal the way you guys (in the media) make it,” Brown said. “You guys make big stories. That’s my guy. I love him. I got his back no matter what’s said. Everything he said is gonna encourage us to get better.”
Moments later, Brown referred to Roethlisberger as “My guy,” and insisted that any negative words the veteran quarterback might have about his teammates are done to “inspire” and “encourage” the rest of the team
After all, Brown points out, Roethlisberger is the only player in the Steelers’ locker room who’s won a Super Bowl ring with the organization.
“We have a lot of good history together – and we will continue to make history,” said Brown, who has set records for catches and receiving yards while compiling the vast majority of his production off passes from Roethlisberger. “We have that relationship where we challenge each other, we encourage each other. That’s the situation you wanna have with your quarterback.”
But don’t the personal criticisms hurt?
“I got big shoulders. I can take it,” Brown said. “Constructive criticism (is) only for you to get better. It’s only made to challenge, only made to make you better. And that’s my guy.”
Another one of Brown’s “guys” is Smith-Schuster, the second-year phenom who has more receptions (77-71) and receiving yards (1,055-874) than Brown this season despite having just turned 22 last week.
Whereas in the past Brown, at times, has seemed reluctant to praise a talented receiver teammate, there appears to be a genuine mutual respect between he and Smith-Schuster.
A day after Smith-Schuster attributed his success to the double-teams Brown draws, Brown tacitly agreed, saying: “When (Smith-Schuster) doesn’t get the second DB and is getting one-on-one coverage, he takes it personal. He’s going to win. And he’s going to make the defense pay. If you want to take away AB, then JuJu gonna make a play.”
But Brown also returned some love, calling Smith-Schuster “a stud.”
“He wants to be great; he’s just inspired by the game, and he wants to be the best – and that’s what makes him so special,” Brown said. “It means something to him; you can tell by the way he works and the way he goes about his business. He loves the game.”
Smith-Schuster on Thursday reiterated how scouting reports on him coming out of USC as a junior in 2017 fuel him because they generally knocked him for his lack of breakaway speed.
Brown, similarly, repeatedly discusses how his status as a sixth-round pick has motivated him throughout his career.
That, in part, is what allows Brown to let any relatively-benign criticism from his quarterback figuratively roll off his back. After all, even in a down season by his standards and while ranking below Smith-Schuster on his own team, Brown still is ninth among NFL wide receivers in catches and 12 th in receiving yards.
“AB takes it as, ‘I’m a sixth-round draft pick – I hate you all anyways because you all hate me,’” veteran teammate Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “Even the Steelers, he looks at it like, ‘You guys didn’t draft me in the first round, either.’ And that’s what makes him great, that’s what makes him a Hall of Famer, because he has that chip on his shoulders.
“If (Roethlisberger) thinks it motivates (Brown), great. But you’re going to get the best out of him. (Brown) is going to come out giving his best anyways.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.