Steelers receiver Antonio Brown pulls in a fourth-quarter touchdown pass behind the Jets' Marcus Williams on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, at Heinz Field.(Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review)
Antonio Brown heard the word “distraction” and ended the interview, slipping out of the Steelers' locker room.
Brown didn't bother to let me finish the question, which is both understandable and unfortunate.
Understandable in his frustration with being called a distraction, whether it's for wearing custom spikes paying homage to sports legends or for his twerking touchdown dance that has drawn five-figure fines.
Unfortunate in that I wanted to ask Brown about being a distraction for defenses, as the Steelers star has become the NFL's most dangerous decoy.
The 31-13 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday at Heinz Field was the latest display of how the Steelers are exploiting defenses designed to stop Brown.
“I still try to get him the ball when we can, try to call some plays to get him the ball,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I just have to be careful not to force the issue when we've got other guys doing some great things.”
The Jets played man coverage, rolling safeties over to keep the ball away from Brown. Nonetheless, he still tied for the team lead in targets (11) and receptions (nine), gaining 78 yards and scoring a touchdown.
Brown became the 10th active NFL player with 7,500 receiving yards (7,540), joining Steelers greats Hines Ward (12,083) and John Stallworth (8,723) on the all-time list.
“Usually, when guys come out and play us, they do their best to take me out of the game,” Brown said. “They're going to put two and three guys on me, and other guys have to step up in that regard. I'm just staying positive, letting the game come to me.”
It has to be hard for Brown to remain positive, however, when he is ordered to change his cleats a couple of plays into the game.
“In the NFL, there are certain rules and guidelines you've got to follow,” Brown said. “I've just got to follow the rules.”
Last week, Brown wore spikes honoring late golf legend Arnold Palmer of Latrobe, longtime home of Steelers training camp.
On Sunday, with the Steelers wearing their “Bumblebee” throwback uniforms, Brown sported spikes honoring late boxing great Muhammad Ali, with his image and catchphrase, all in black and gold: Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
“I thought I was OK, but it turned out I wasn't,” Brown said. “I just made an adjustment.”
Likewise, the Steelers and Brown made adjustments when the Jets shadowed his every move. Where Brown was only targeted four times in the first half, his presence opened up the checkdown passes to Le'Veon Bell, who benefited the most with nine catches for 88 yards to go with 60 rushing yards.
“Those guys tried to double-team me,” Brown said, “which allowed Le'Veon to have one-on-one matches underneath, and we took advantage of that.”
The focus on Brown also left open the deep ball to Sammie Coates, who had six catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
Roethlisberger called the attention paid to Brown “huge,” noting that Coates' second scoring play was designed for Brown until he was doubled up.
“He had safeties over top of him, boy, almost all day,” Roethlisberger said. “They were doubling him, jumping inside, jumping outside. ... I just think that shows that, as a full team on offense when we're clicking. We use everybody.”
Meantime, Brown showcased his speed on punt returns, with two for 51 yards. His 5-yard catch gave the Steelers a 24-13 lead to start the fourth quarter.
Brown's TD celebration involved no “sexually suggestive” dance moves but rather handing the ball to a Steelers fan.
“I could do what I want. It's America,” Brown said. “That's how I was feeling today. It's a long game, a tough game. It wasn't really the time to put the pumps in. I'm going to save them for when it's a great moment.”
That his touchdown twerking has drawn NFL fines totaling more than $36,000 already this season had nothing to do with it.
“I could write it off,” Brown said. “I could do what I want.”
It's clear that what Brown wants most is the ball, the chance to make game-changing plays.
What he doesn't want to be is considered a distraction.
Although he commands the camera — whether it's by appearing on “Dancing With the Stars,” with his haircuts and shoes or twerking after touchdowns — aside from the 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, it's all harmless.
“There's nothing off the field,” Steelers receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “That dude's a pro. He's all about trying to make plays for this team.”
Brown needs to continue making the most of his opportunities and deal with the days of facing double teams.
As the Steelers offense develops around him, opponents are going to have no choice but to pick their poison. For now, it's Brown. Next, it could be Bell.
When the great moment arrives, the Steelers will look for Brown and his ability to dissect defenses. Regardless of whether Brown likes the word, that will be a welcome distraction.