The first game of the 2014 season was much different for second-year Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Justin Brown, who, rather than being on the practice squad, found himself on the field for the first snap of the opening game.
The team needed him with free agent signing Lance Moore sidelined with a groin injury, even if he appeared to be close to returning according to reports from practice watching him running on his own off to the side.
The Steelers held Moore out of the last two preseason games while he nursed what was then an undisclosed injury, and with a short week before the Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday, he could miss at least two games.
Brown won’t be complaining, and he certainly won’t want to go back to the practice squad after getting his first taste of real NFL football.
For his first career game—and technically, start, since the Steelers run out of the 11 personnel as their base now—Brown caught three passes for 38 yards, with a long reception of 18 yards.
He had another reception waved off because of offensive pass interference, but the play resulted in offsetting penalties after he got the cornerback to react and throw him down after beating him on the play.
The second-year receiver did have one down moment of note in his debut performance. With the Steelers collapsing in the second half, they finally gained a spark with a 25-yard reception off a fake punt.
But just two plays later, they were facing a third and five near midfield after the Cleveland Browns tied the game. Ben Roethlisberger, always the one to give his receivers the opportunity to come up big for him, looked Brown’s way, needling the pass through a crowd of defenders to get him the ball.
The pass hit his hands, but he wasn’t able to hold on to the ball once he was hit. Safety Jim Leonard came in from behind him and hit the ball to knock it out. It was a nice play by the defensive back, but you still want to see your receiver with better control.
Brown’s main contribution on the night was as a blocker. He had several key blocks on runs throughout the afternoon. It’s something that we looked at during the preseason, and was surely a factor in him making the roster.
But the primary storyline of the day for the second-year receiver was simply being on the field, and seeing a significant amount of snaps. I don’t have an exact snap count, but he appeared to be on the field, mostly in the slot, for most of the game.
When the Steelers did use Darrius Heyward-Bey, they actually moved Antonio Brown into the slot. Using Justin Brown gives the offense more options because of his ability to play all of the different wide receiver positions, and that may help keep him on the field even once the other receivers get healthy.