- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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After he had made a game-breaking play against the Bengals, the Steelers' Antonio Brown was talking to a swarm of reporters until quarterback Ben Roethlisberger asked to speak to the wide receiver off to the side.
Brown came back to his locker with a big grin on his face. So, what did Roethlisberger whisper to him?
"I can't reveal our secrets," Brown said coyly.
Well, there's one secret that can't be kept any longer: Brown is the top playmaker on the Steelers.
In a matter of a months, Brown went from the Steelers' promising No. 3 wide receiver to the popular No. 1 target when Pittsburgh needs to finish off a team.
It happened two weeks ago against Cincinnati when Brown returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown to answer a Bengals touchdown and essentially put the game away before halftime. It happened again last week against Cleveland when Brown took a short pass and turned it into a 79-yard touchdown to close out the game with 2:52 remaining.
The Steelers might need to rely on Brown even more Monday night at San Francisco if Roethlisberger can't play on his injured ankle.
"He is improving in all areas -- in route-running, coverage recognition, being quarterback-friendly and just an overall understanding of the game and how he fits in the big picture," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Brown. "That's what we expect of all second-year men, to grow by leaps and bounds in all areas, and he has done that to this point."
Brown, the 195th player taken in the 2010 draft, has improved "by leaps and bounds" in this season alone.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brown averaged 43.7 yards receiving with no touchdowns and no 100-yard performances in his first nine games this season. In the past four games, however, he has averaged 94.7 yards receiving with two touchdowns and had three 100-yard games.
An argument could be made that wide receiver Mike Wallace remains the Steelers' most dangerous threat because of his speed. But Brown has been the team's most consistent threat based on his production.
"[The Steelers] have a guy No. 84 in Antonio Brown who is better than 17 [Wallace] in all aspects of the game," Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said last month.
Brown flashed his potential last season when he beat Webb for a 58-yard catch, the critical late play in the Steelers' divisional playoff win over the Ravens. He's just taken it to the next level this year.
"I always knew I was capable," Brown told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "It's a league of opportunities, and that's all it's about."
The real "secret" to Brown's success has been his bond with Roethlisberger. Brown leads the Steelers in passes thrown his way with 97, which is eight more than Wallace. He also ranks second in the AFC with 23 third-down receptions, which shows that Roethlisberger looks to him in pressure situations.
These numbers aren't being produced by talent alone. It's the result of hard work and long talks.
"If you watch us during practice, he's constantly by my side," Roethlisberger said. "He's just always right there, and it's good because he's coming to me asking 'OK, Ben on this play do you want me to do this, do you want me to do this?' And I think that's awesome because I know where he's going to be, and that's one of the biggest reasons why I think we've been so successful on third down."
Brown's biggest strength is his versatility. He can beat a team as a wide receiver or as a returner. He can beat a cornerback deep or show off his elusiveness by grabbing a short toss, spinning around a defender with a fake and racing untouched to the end zone.
"When you get single coverage and a guy that's as talented as he is, with body control, with his hands, he's got the speed to run deep," Roethlisberger said. "He just has a lot of tools [and] he puts in the extra work."