PITTSBURGH - The horn signaling the end of Steelers practice on Wednesday hadn't finished echoing off the surrounding hillside when a stream of players dashed off the field and into the locker room.
Not Antonio Brown.
The third-year wide receiver stripped off his shoulder pads, walked over to the sideline and spent an extra 10 minutes catching passes. It's a routine Brown began as a rookie and he's not about to stop now, even if the five-year, $42 million contract extension he signed a month ago means he's officially graduated from sixth-round flyer to budding star.
"If you want to be the best, you have to simply outwork your opponent," Brown said with a shrug of his shoulders.
Something the 26-year-old Brown did with spectacular results in the second half of 2011 when he became quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's favorite target. As defenses adjusted their coverage to take away Pro Bowler Mike Wallace's blazing speed, Brown showcased the soft hands and precise route running that won Roethlisberger's respect in the summer of 2010.
As Wallace's numbers dipped, Brown's soared. He finished with more receptions (35 vs. 29) and more yards (677 vs. 393) than Wallace over the final eight games and while Wallace spent the offseason and the first month of training camp sitting out hoping for a new deal, Brown was a regular at Organized Team Activities and slid into the locker vacated by the recently retired Hines Ward.
Brown downplays the symbolism. He doesn't view the move as a passing of the torch so much as a matter of convenience. The locker puts him right next to Wallace, giving two of the best young receivers in the league plenty of time to commiserate on how to help the Steelers earn their seventh Lombardi Trophy.
And they stress there is no rivalry between them, even if Wallace enters the season with a bit of uncertainty about his future. He signed his one-year tender a week ago and remains optimistic he can get a new contract with the Steelers before the season begins on Sunday at Denver.
Brown doesn't expect Wallace's status to be a distraction, and gives much of the praise for his numbers last season on the heaping amount of attention defenses focused on his teammate.
"Sometimes Mike's clearing out, helping me underneath or other guys are doing the necessary things," Brown said. "That's our mindset."
Wallace plans to be on the field against the Broncos. He practiced with the first team on Wednesday and all signs point to him starting. Only this time it won't be the fading Ward lining up at the other receiver spot but Brown, who appears to be plenty comfortable in offensive coordinator Todd Haley's new system. The scheme calls for shorter routes, relying on the receivers to make splash plays once the ball is in their hands, one of Brown's strengths. He likens them to punt returns.
"You get the ball and a chance to set things up, survey the field," Brown said. "That's something I've always tried to focus on."
While Wallace worked out on his own in Florida during training camp, Brown was scoring on a brilliant 57-yard catch-and-run in a preseason victory over the Colts. He took a screen pass from Roethlisberger, read the block of teammate Heath Miller then darted up the middle of the field for a score, adding a flip into the end zone for style points.
He didn't stick the landing, but he didn't have to. The message was sent. He's ready to take the next step. Brown has certainly convinced teammate Jerricho Cotchery - at 30 the receiving corps' elder statesmen - that he's prepared to make the leap to stardom.
"His mindset is just pitch and catch," Cotchery said. "He just went nuts last year. This guy is coming off an 1,100-yard season and went to the Pro Bowl. You can see it, the way he's running his routes. You can see everything has slowed down for him. I know he's feeling very confident right now."
Roethlisberger is certainly confident in him. Twice during practice on Wednesday, Brown darted downfield against blanket coverage. Twice Roethlisberger put the ball into a tiny window. Twice Brown came down it, the second time making a one-handed grab while doing a pirouette. The pirouette was a little bit for show, Brown said with a smile, his way to make practice harder than the game.
"If you make it more difficult than what you'll face on Sunday night, you'll be ready," Brown said.
He's been ready since the moment he stepped onto the practice field during OTAs shortly after getting drafted. His diligence immediately caught Roethlisberger's attention and the relationship has only strengthened over time.
Ask Roethlisberger about Brown's development and he rattles off a laundry list of things he's seen Brown redouble his focus on in the weeks after signing his new deal that will keep him in black-and-gold for the second half of Roethlisberger's career.
"Just his route running, learning the offense, the defense, when he needs to look back for the ball," Roethlisberger said.