PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger did a zero take, which caused a reporter to do a double take.
During a training camp practice, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback checked his first two reads on the right side of the field, then fired to the left sideline without as much as a head turn. It looked like Roethlisberger essentially threw a no-look pass to Antonio Brown on a deep out route, a play the two have perfected with hundreds of connections, as if Roethlisberger knew those 20 yards would always be there if nothing else was.
When asked about not looking at the target on the play, Roethlisberger laughed it off, saying he sometimes messes with different throwing angles.
But one point is clear: Roethlisberger feels he can launch the ball to the sideline at any time and Brown will make a play, a reality the Washington Redskins will see first-hand on Monday Night Football.
As the saying goes, give Brown an inch (of sideline), he'll take a mile (of yardage). In the conversation of best NFL receivers, no one tops Brown's ability to use pristine footwork to snag tightly contested catches while staying in bounds, either in the back of the end zone or by the hash marks.
"He's Tony Toe Tap," teammate Darrius Heyward-Bey said. "That's why we call him that."
Washington won't simply be guarding Brown. It will try to minimize damage on the plays that can't be guarded.
Roethlisberger refers to these plays as "our guy's ball or nobody's," throwing a ball so wide to the sideline that cornerbacks can't get to it.
"With AB, you can throw it a little wider than usual because he’ll find a way to get a toe tap in," Roethlisberger said. "Any time a ball is caught on the sideline and the official says 'No,' I’m always quick to say, 'Let’s think about challenging this,' because I’ve never seen anybody better on the sideline."
Brown's feet are so nimble that sometimes you can't hear him when he runs and cuts, as if the grass was replaced by marshmallows. Much of Brown's offseason work involves the strengthening of footwork.
During practices, Roethlisberger and Brown do a lot of talking to understand what each other wants from a route. From flags to curls, what's happening by the sideline is a prominent topic. Occasionally, long cornerbacks such as Richard Sherman might have some success covering Brown, but even the lankiest corners can't bat down a ball that's well out of bounds for only a diving Brown to get.
Brown, whose 265 catches since 2014 is an NFL record over a two-year span, explains his sideline work matter-of-factly.
"My job is to catch the ball," Brown said with a smile. "Wherever it is. We talk about it a lot, and I like the results so far."
Heyward-Bey said Steelers receivers are taught the art of "dragging whatever's back" -- or what's behind their body -- when catching the ball by the sideline. Longtime NFL wide receivers coach Richard Mann is a stickler for it. He has been known to carry VHS tapes into the Steelers' facility to show examples of players he coached from the 80s who perfected the foot drag.
Players apply that teaching, and Brown has made it an art form. He can be outstretched and off-balanced and still apply the drag technique.
"[Brown] is just a natural at it," Heyward-Bey said. "He works so hard at it."
Brown's secret is playing bigger than he is, offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. His body positioning, ball skills and route-running technique allows him to make up for lost space on the field.
Haley remembers a moment against Baltimore last season where officials adamantly ruled a Brown catch incomplete. The Steelers didn't challenge the sideline play, but they should have -- the game film confirmed the catch days later.
"Despite not being a 6-foot-3, 6-4 guy, his ball skills are so good and his footwork, feet on the sideline are the best in the world, so he's able to maybe stay in on balls where live, when you're watching, you're thinking no chance," Haley said.