Antonio Brown's Steeler stardom the product of rare work ethic

PITTSBURGH -- The printing is neat. Block letters, evenly spaced, written with a mechanical pencil so nothing is missed while sharpening a yellow No. 2.

Antonio Brown's penmanship fills six of these spiral notebooks, one for every year he's been in the NFL. They all have black covers, all are packed with detailed precision. Routes, checks, the opponent's tendencies in every situation Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley can imagine. Brown draws arrows. He records asides Haley utters. And then he goes back, every night, marking specific sections in bright yellow highlighter.

"He's like a ninja back there," fellow receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said, pantomiming super-quick pen to paper.

"He's always writing," Martavis Bryant, another fellow receiver, said.

"If you write it down," Brown said, "you've got a memory."

This is the Brown the Steelers know.

Yes, there is the Brown everyone else knows, the one of the goofy touchdown celebrations and staggering numbers -- 136 catches, 1,834 yards this year, on top of 239 catches, 3,197 yards the two years before that. But those numbers, the MVP talk opposing coaches keep uttering, it's all, Haley said, because of what's quietly stocked in those notebooks: "He's putting in the time and effort. He's studying it. He'll come and remind you he's taking notes by repeating something obscure you said weeks ago."

The Steelers might've backed into Saturday night's wild-card matchup with the Bengals, after dropping a desultory effort to the rival Ravens in Week 16 and needing upset help from the Bills in Week 17. But never mind; fans of the game that is football should rejoice. This is one more week of watching Antonio Brown. Brian Billick said he's the Steph Curry of the NFL, Ike Taylor said he has the best lateral quickness he's ever seen and none of it is hyperbole.

"He's a guy," Steelers corner William Gay said, "who never stops working."

Brown's work ethic is legendary in these parts. He doesn't have the measurables of a prototypical top-flight receiver (though Steelers coach Mike Tomlin laughed, "Try telling him that"). He doesn't have one obvious otherworldly skill, like John Brown's speed or Odell Beckham Jr.'s hands. But he works. He'll run ladders for hours after practice has ended, he has more catches over the last two years (265) than anyone has EVER had in a two-year span and he still works on the jugs machine, catching balls, every week. He goes to a Gold's Gym at night, when most of his teammates are headed to bed, and James Harrison, the NFL's noted workout master, said if on a scale of 1-10, his own commitment is a 10+, "Antonio is right there with me."

Brown lockers in the same little corner as Harrison, by the equipment room and away from any of the usual shenanigans in an NFL locker room. He interviews teammates for a weekly Steelers TV bit and he occasionally pulls out a hard hat when he does it, but he largely avoids large crowds these days. He's not prone to grandiose promises or pronouncements and he mostly dismisses those that others make, like when Broncos coach Gary Kubiak and then the Browns' Mike Pettine and Bengals' Marvin Lewis all in succession said Brown should be considered for the league's MVP award.

"That goes to a quarterback," Brown said last week, with an amused smile and in his usual post-practice position, slumped in a chair in front of his locker.

If there is one boast Brown cops to, it's in the photo he's hung next to his locker: Him, holding a microphone to Ben Roethlisberger, above Roethlisberger's autograph and the quarterback's penned words, "AB, we're unstoppable."

It didn't happen overnight. In fact, the Steelers rarely threw to Brown in 2010, his first year here, as a sixth-rounder out of Central Michigan. Harrison said he always worked absurdly hard, though; Gay remembers Brown's rookie year, when he was a scout team receiver and every starting corner would moan, "Man, you're a pest -- can we get someone else?"

Catch by catch, Roethlisberger's trust mushroomed. Now, he throws to Brown when he has no business throwing to him, in the face of double and triple teams, when Brown changes a route because instinct tells him to, when Brown has a corner who hasn't given up a touchdown in two years blanketing him.

That last one, that was the Broncos' Chris Harris, who was part of a self-dubbed "No-Fly Zone" that Brown ultimately tagged for 16 catches, 189 yards and two touchdowns. Haley said in that game, after an ineffective first half, he essentially reverted to a back-of-the-clipboard game plan, a la an unscripted training-camp scrimmage. He lined Brown up in spots he doesn't line up in, he asked him to run routes he doesn't ordinarily run and it was all seamless.

"I've learned pretty quickly not to place a ceiling on AB because he's going to shatter it," Haley said.

Roethlisberger has played with Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Mike Wallace. He calls it as "special" a roster of receivers as any, and when he's asked, from that group, what about Brown stands out, the first thing he says is, "his work ethic is unbelievable."

It's an -- to use a Tomlin word -- obvious adage: When a team's best player is its hardest worker, it bodes well for the team. And so it's not all that surprising that that trait was on the tip of Roethlisberger's tongue Wednesday either. Roethlisberger made semi-waves on his radio show Tuesday, when he said the Steelers needed more from touchdown wunderkind Martavis Bryant.

A mega-target with illogical speed, Bryant had nine touchdowns in just three starts as a rookie last season -- after sitting the first six weeks of the year because of an unimpressive camp. He missed the first five games of this season while serving a suspension (for a positive marijuana test) and nursing a knee injury, and then ripped off seven touchdowns and 759 yards in the next nine games. But he's been quiet (two catches) in the last two, and so Roethlisberger publicly said he's "got to get tough. You've got to make tough plays and you've got to make tough catches and you have to find ways to do everything you can to help this team." Describing to a T -- that's right -- Brown.

"In our room, we all expect everyone to be big time, and that's because of a guy like AB," Heyward-Bey said. "Ben can say that and demand that of Martavis because if AB is working like that, and trying like that, no one else has an excuse not to."

Brown is more conscious of this than ever before in his career. He said he does think about being a leader, but mostly "to lead by example." Still, Wednesday, Brown pulled Bryant aside after practice to work on the jugs machine with him. He pointedly asked Bryant, "Do you want to go to the Super Bowl?" Later, Bryant said, "I never say no to AB. He knows everything."

Sure, Brown comes off a bit showboaty, a bit high-maintenance about his touches. It's the easy explanation for his animated frustration with backup Landry Jones, after a failed connection during Roethlisberger's mid-season absence with a foot sprain. Tomlin, who rarely is public in his chastising, had to share after the Steelers' win over the Cardinals that he'd sat Brown down and told him point blank: "His career will be defined on how many Lombardis he contributes to our stash."

Brown said it was a fair point and an important conversation, but he also said that explanation wasn't necessarily complete. He said the emoting was because he does want to contribute, as much as he can. He has an unshakeable faith in his ability and assets (Heyward-Bey joked Wednesday, "If you ask Antonio right now, he's 7-foot-2"), and for all his successes, he hasn't changed. Tomlin regularly sticks his head in the receiver room and says, "Today we're going to take care of AB, OK?" Then practice comes and Brown refuses to take any fewer snaps, telling all comers, "Nah, I'm good."

His teammates just voted him their season MVP for a third time. This week, Tomlin said he wouldn't trade him for any receiver in the game.

And so, here the Steelers sit, looking to add to that Lombardi stash, a potentially frightening and definitely dangerous six seed, in very large part because of Brown. Wednesday afternoon, he already had three pages filled in his notebook on this third matchup with the Bengals. After all, he's not leaving anything to chance.

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.