Curtis Brown is patiently waiting his turn to man one of the corners of the Steelers defense. Yet, the unassuming defensive back has quietly had a productive rookie season.
Brown, a third-round draft pick, is working hard to earn playing time behind starters Ike Taylor and William Gay. But the team's fourth pick, cornerback Cortez Allen, has moved into the rotation ahead of Brown.
However, Brown has stood out among a rookie class forced into duty, in part, because of early season injuries. The former University of Texas standout has easily been the most consistent player on special teams.
"He's got a different sense of urgency than most," coach Mike Tomlin said. "His hair is on fire. This guy competes when he's in position to make plays. He competes when he is in less than ideal positions."
Brown excels in kick coverage, having amassed a team-high 13 tackles — including 11 solo tackles. He has twice as many as Allen and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, both of whom have six tackles.
"He's an exciting young guy, not only because of what he's doing on special teams," Tomlin said. "Generally, if a guy plays with that kind of production on special teams, it's a window to what he may be capable of doing at some point on offense or defense."
Brown will be thrust into the spotlight against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night at Heinz Field. He'll be challenged to bottle up return specialist Josh Cribbs, who has tormented the Steelers in the past.
"(Special teams) coach (Al Everest) showed us clips of him against us in the past, and he always made plays," Brown said. "Obviously, he's dangerous, but I'm not looking at him any differently because you have to compete and keep your passion up -- that's what I do."
Cribbs hasn't been nearly as effective this season, mostly because of blown blocking assignments and a new rule change — kickoffs at the 40 — that has marginally affected kick returns throughout the league. He is 26th in the league with a 26.4-yard average on 29 kickoff returns with a season-best of 63 yards.
"It's been a little frustrating, but we've been close to making things happen in the return game," Cribbs said.
Cribbs had three kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2009 — including a 98-yarder against the Steelers. He smartly picked his way through the first wave of Steelers, and out-raced Gay along the right sideline for one of his 10 career returns for touchdowns, which is fifth all-time behind the record 17 of Chicago's Devin Hester.
Brown relishes the challenge of facing one of the league's premier return men.
"It's hard to make a play every week, but he's always good to bust one open," Brown said. "We have to attack because we know what he's capable of doing. He's one of those guys that can make something out of nothing. We have to keep that in our heads."
Brown, though, hardly seemed concerned as he stretched out near his locker after Tuesday's morning practice.
For the most part, pro scouts where impressed with Brown during his final two seasons with the Longhorns, partly because of his tackling technique and calm demeanor. Surprisingly, he slid down the draft board for the Steelers who were looking to shore up an aging secondary that was sixth-best in the AFC in 2010.
"He's as competitive a person as I've been around in a long time," Everest said. "He's going to be fine in our defense, too. Guys like that are hard to find."
Even though his progress was slowed by a handful of nagging injuries in the preseason, Brown didn't hang his head as he watched from the sidelines at St. Vincent College. After all, there was plenty of competition for his roster spot.
"It was hard (in training camp), but everything happens for a reason," he said. "This is just another step in being a good NFL player. It's something I have to do. Maybe, I'll get my shot when I've developed enough as a cornerback."
For now, he's developed into the team's best player on special teams.