PITTSBURGH — Joe Haden gets it now.
After seven seasons with Cleveland, Haden watched Antonio Brown weave through a sea of orange-and-brown traffic twice a year. He figured Brown worked tirelessly to become the best. He didn’t know Brown’s trade secrets.
He found one in his first practice as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Brown took a routine slant route in a non-tackle drill and, instead of stopping after 10 yards and jogging back to the huddle like most receivers would, Brown went the length of the field, full speed, then ran back to the huddle, full speed.
“Some receivers will tap or catch it and jog back,” Haden said. “He’s catching it and making game moves at full speed well after the play is over, all the way downfield. And he’s doing it every time.”
Now, Brown sprints into NFL exclusivity.
Brown, 29, is on pace to record a fifth straight 100-catch season, which no receiver in league history has done.
Not Jerry Rice. Not Randy Moss. Not Marvin Harrison, who recorded four straight 100-catch seasons from 1999-2002.
“Remarkable,” former NFL receiver and ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson said.
“We’re watching a guy in his prime take full advantage of it,” teammate Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “He wants the ball more than anybody else.”
Forty catches over the final seven regular-season games would break Brown’s tie with Harrison, a quest that begins Thursday night against the Tennessee Titans.
Brown’s average of 8.7 catches since 2013 suggests that number won’t be a problem, despite a current lull of 12 catches in the last three games. The Steelers run too much of their passing game through Brown, and the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster should help loosen up the constant Brown double-teams.
Broaching this accomplishment with Brown elicits a shrug and a swift segue to team-oriented goals. He won’t touch the subject despite a reporter’s several attempts.
But his current mood when it comes to attacking the football explains how he got here, and why even the game’s hottest young cornerback, Jacksonville’s Jalen Ramsey, is calling Brown “easily tops that I’ve played [against].”
“Grab that,” Brown said. “Say it in your head. Grab that.”
That quote reminds Heyward-Bey of one of his favorite Brown moments. In the final minutes of the season opener at Cleveland, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back with the Steelers deep in their own territory. Big Ben heaved a 40-yard floater in the direction of Brown, who was engulfed by three Browns defensive backs toward the sideline.
“He’s the shortest one. Who went up there and got it?” Heyward-Bey said. “He wants the ball. It’s a different mentality. When the ball’s up in the air, some people are like, ‘Who’s around me? Am I going to fall on my back? How should I catch it?’ He’s like, ‘I’m going to go up there and get it. Who cares how I catch it? Hands, body, doesn’t matter. I just want the ball.’ I don’t know a lot of people who can do that. Odell [Beckham Jr.] is maybe the only other guy who has that. Randy Moss had that.”
The idea of 100 catches in a season isn’t groundbreaking. The NFL has averaged 5.2 100-catch performances per season since 2012. No receiver before 1992 posted 100 or more catches in back-to-back seasons.
But six NFL receivers have reached at least three consecutive years of triple digits. Other than Brown, Brandon Marshall is the only receiver with three 100-catch seasons since 2012 — Marshall has six such seasons in his career, including three straight from 2007-09.
Brown’s consistency is an amalgam of good health, stability at quarterback, a scheme designed to feed the No. 1 receiver and body control that welcomes footballs of all angles.
With an offseason dietary and training regimen that would rival Tom Brady’s TB12 method, Brown has not missed a regular-season game to injury since 2012.
“What you take the bow to is staying healthy,” Johnson said. “I don’t care about the catches. Taking all the hits and staying on the field is the impressive part. It’s how you take care for of your body and how not to take the blows to the body. The Steelers’ offense is designed around getting him the ball without taking the bit shots.”
Even when healthy, Brown has experienced slow production before, which should be considered during this chase. His current three-week stretch of 182 yards (60.7 per game) is well below his average of 116.7 through the first six games.
From Weeks 4-6 in 2015, Brown had 111 yards and 11 catches with Landry Jones and Mike Vick at quarterback. But Brown has shown the ability to work his way through slumps. During the next four games in 2015, Brown roared back with 39 catches for 470 yards.
That come-at-you-every-snap relentlessness is what Roethlisberger appreciates most about Brown’s portfolio, citing a 32-yard gain in the final minute of Sunday’s 20-17 victory over Indianapolis. Brown wasn’t open upon first read, but cut to the middle of the field for an over-the-top strike.
“He beats double-teams, triple-teams; he’s patient,” Roethlisberger said. “Last week wasn’t one of his biggest games, but he comes up with our biggest play when we need it the most.”
Brown offsets his 5-foot-10 frame with quickness and 10 of the NFL’s friendliest fingers. Out of 108 catchable targets last season, Brown caught all but two of them, a 1.8-percent drop percentage that easily led the league, according to Pro Football Focus. The next closest was Larry Fitzgerald at 3.6 percent.
Brown’s only drop this year was a sideline deep ball in Indianapolis that Brown said he lost in the dome lights.
Steelers defenders who watch from the sideline are admittedly spoiled.
“I’m mad when he doesn’t catch it,” cornerback William Gay said. “You’ll be more shocked when he drops a ball.”
A few weeks after watching Brown go for 165 yards on 10 catches against the Jaguars, Ramsey called Brown “a dog” for his relentless pursuit of the football.
This week, Titans cornerback Logan Ryan will likely see a healthy dose of dog. Ryan has come to understand Brown’s goal is to eventually shatter the will of a corner by outworking him each play.
Only a game of no slip-ups can survive that storm.
“You can tell the game is important to him,” Ryan said. “He’s going to compete every week to get his numbers. It’s more of his work ethic and mentality on top of his talent. You’ve got to always know where he’s at. You’ve gotta realize that they’re going to make their plays. You’ve got to limit their production. You can’t be afraid of who he is and what he’s done.”
Brown’s only weakness might be his temper. Roethlisberger said after Brown’s Week 4, Gatorade-cooler-flipping tantrum that his flare-ups knock down his “superhuman” football ability just a notch. Brown has since been vocal about cooling it.
Despite the histrionics, Heyward-Bey has noticed a player who moves on from good or bad plays rather quickly. He wouldn’t be chasing these milestones without a level of amnesia.
“The way he approaches it is, he knows he’s great, but he wants to get better every day,” Heyward-Bey said. “He doesn’t focus on, ‘Oh, I’m great.’ Nah, he’s like, ‘I want to get better because I’m great.'”
But let’s be real about it, Haden says: Brown can roll out of bed and be really good. The way he plays angles and shows perfect hand placement is unique to him.
Over 16 games, the talent prevails.
“God gave it to him,” Haden said. “There are things he can do that other people can’t.”
ESPN reporters Cameron Wolfe and Michael DiRocco contributed to this report.