Analysis Notebook: Week 7

What if I told you the league's best receiver was just 5'10 and 186lbs? Well read on, because I'm about to do just that.

| 2 years ago
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Analysis Notebook: Week 7


analysis notebook copyWhat if I told you the best wide receiver in football was just 5’10, 186lbs? Not some 6’3, 220lb monster who destroyed defensive backs with physicality, but a guy who beat them the traditional way, by getting open and catching passes. That he is a former sixth round pick who at the time I remember thinking wouldn’t translate well to the NFL.

Antonio Brown right now is the best receiver in football. He is currently in the midst of a ridiculous consistent streak of 19-straight games with at least five catches and 50 receiving yards, a streak of 10 straight games with a positive PFF grade for his receiving work and has at least five catches and 84 yards in every game so far this season.

Antonio Brown leads the league in receiving yards and trails only Matt Forte in receptions with 50 on the year – he is certainly the most consistent wide out in the game, and has a clear case to be the best too.

One of the things I most like about Brown’s play is that the Steelers continue to employ him as a punt returner, bucking the league-wide trend of protecting your best players from special teams. There is some irrational fear that a talented playmaker is somehow more likely to suffer a catastrophic and costly injury returning a kick or punt than he is carrying the ball between the tackles, catching a pass over the middle or trying to make things happen with the ball in his hands after a quick screen pass.

Brown is a dangerous weapon with the ball in his hands and the Steelers quite rightly want to employ this at any and all opportunity.

Take a look at this return all the way back in the first week of the season:

AntonioBrown

Brown did this consistently in college at Central Michigan, and made it look so easy that it was easy to be fooled into thinking that it wouldn’t translate to the NFL where the athletes are bigger, faster and stronger. He makes it look so easy to avoid people trying to tackle him and to make a sharp cut sending a would be tackler in the wrong direction that it almost looks unathletic. It might be simple to do that to players in the MAC, but in the NFL that won’t wash was what I thought.

It turns out it translates just fine. This punt return was picture perfect right up until the moment he decided to drop a running karate kick at the punter’s face.

At the NFL Combine Brown ran a 4.56 official time. At his height and weight that might not be pedestrian, but it’s certainly far from impressive (by comparison Calvin Johnson ran a 4.35 carrying 50lbs of extra weight on a 7-inch taller frame). He isn’t a player with devastating speed, quickness or agility, but he has that rare ability to set up defenders and always move to the place they aren’t expecting. That works as a return man obviously, but it’s also a skill inherent to playing wide receiver and getting open despite defensive backs often having a good idea what you are trying to run through their own tape study and understanding of the situation and tendencies.

Brown has the ability to fool defensive backs into thinking he is running one thing and then turning it into something else. When you team that with the pump-fake that Ben Roethlisberger is able to deploy it can seem almost unfair.

Take this play against the Browns in week 6:

2014-10-22_11-28-19

 

The Steelers are looking at 3rd and 2 and have Joe Haden covering Brown playing off-coverage, so the obvious thing to do would be to run the quick out pattern and move the chains. Of course Haden knows that too, so he is looking for that route and as soon as he sees Brown loop towards the sideline he drove hard on it. A full-arm pump fake – the type only Roethlisberger seems capable of delivering – sealed the deal. From that point however Brown just turned it up the sideline and caught a deeper pass for much greater yardage. Haden actually recovered reasonably considering how hard he was flying towards the first move, but even so the Pittsburgh combination made it seem like shoolyard pitch and catch.

Brown has more than that in his arsenal however, and despite a relatively diminutive stature is still able to make the kind of plays that are2014-10-22_11-26-19usually reserved for much larger receivers. The great thing about being 6’5 is that you have a natural built-in advantage over most defensive backs in terms of wing span and catch radius. All that does is increase your margin for error, but the ability to actually high point the football and adjust to it correctly in flight isn’t dependent on that kind of superior size. Brown showed exactly that on Monday night against the Texans. Running a crossing pattern towards the sideline he knew the only way he was coming down with the football was to go up and get it in front of the defensive back.

As it happens in this instance he actually wasn’t giving up any height to rookie Andre Hal – also 5’10 – but you can see from the image that his timing and perfect adjustment to the ball would have allowed him to win a jump ball situation against a much taller defender and still come down with it.

What made it even more impressive was his ability to maintain control all the way through the catch despite the defensive back wrenching his helmet and generally doing all he could to try and force the ball out as the two went to ground and fell out of bounds.

If you asked an NFL personnel chief to draw up the perfect NFL wide receiver he would probably look an awful lot like a Calvin Johnson or a Julio Jones. He would be 6’3+, 220+lbs, and run the forty in a 4.3 kind of time. He would be a height, weight, speed freak that gave him every possible advantage over the guys that would be trying to cover him.

With those guys that is obviously a successful formula, but it isn’t simply because they have those athletic advantages. They certainly help on occasion, but those guys are successful because they are also talented wide outs who understand how to play the position. The league has chewed up and spat out plenty of height, weight, speed freak wide receivers who just couldn’t play the position very well. Antonio Brown is at the other end of the spectrum. His measurables wouldn’t get anybody excited. There is a reason he went in the sixth round of the draft and even before that was plying his trade in the MAC for Central Michigan, but Brown understands how to play receiver perhaps better than anybody else in the league. He is the modern day version of Jerry Rice – a player whose physical talents were good enough, but certainly not the reason for his success – but who has everything else you look for in abundance.

I’m not saying Brown will end his career with the kind of success Rice enjoyed, or even that he will have that kind of superhuman durability, but Brown is replicating what Rice was able to do in terms of becoming the league’s best receiver despite not blowing people away with his measurables.

Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam

 

 

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • Kent Lee Platte

    I built a measurement system comparing players measurements against their peer group on a relative scale. Brown is one of my outliers. One of only six pro bowlers in the past decade with a below average score on my scale, but the only one that is tops at his position (Two of the remaining five were ST pro bowlers and another was Derek Anderson).

  • Dohkay

    Ehhh I still think it’s Calvin Johnson and it’s not close. Look at the Lions offense without him. They go from being a perennial top-5 unit, especially in passing, to a bottom 10 offense so far in 2014 with him limited in 2 and missing 2 others. They’ve had other injuries but his is clearly the reason they have struggled.

    • Chris

      He’s making the case that Brown is the best wideout who doesn’t have great measurables. Hence the comparison to Rice. Johnson has elite measureables and that’s why he’s so hard to guard, but is his route running and ability in open traffic as good as Brown’s?

      • Dohkay

        “What if I told you the best wide receiver in football was just 5’10,
        186lbs? Not some 6’3, 220lb monster who destroyed defensive backs with physicality, but a guy who beat them the traditional way, by getting
        open and catching passes.”

        “Antonio Brown right now is the best receiver in football.”

        It sounds like he’s making the case that he’s the best, regardless of measurables.

        • Chris

          I mean I’ll agree that he said those things. But i just get the feeling towards the end of the article that he was saying Brown is the best at the intangibles and route running. As in he has the best “receiver skills” in the league.

          • Dohkay

            I don’t disagree with that if that’s the overall conclusion. He certainly is able to overcome many of the things that make the position easier thanks to his route running and you can’t argue with the results. He’s consistent on a week to week basis and also dominant.

          • Chris

            I can’t say I’ve studied his route running, and I don’t imagine many people have league wide either. It’s a very underrated part of the position that goes under the radar because there isn’t a real way to quantify how good someone is.

            That said Brown has to be doing something right, because for as much as I hate the Steelers that little dude puts up numbers.

          • Troll Chris

            Stop talking with yourself

          • Chris

            Oh look who’s awake!

    • DrAWNiloc

      You’ve made the case that Calvin is the most valuable to his team but “best”? Even if we don’t count durability, it’s hard to say that, pound for pound (i.e. ignoring the measurables), Antonio Brown isn’t #1 at this point in time.

      • Dohkay

        Just looking at last year he led the NFL in yards per route run and had 56 more yards on 11 fewer targets than Brown. This year his yards per route run is down but he also played 2 games as a decoy where he saw few targets.

        My point in mentioning the team performance is that the Lions have had a top 5 passing unit for 3 years and suddenly it’s a major liability with Calvin out. Personnel wise you could argue they’ve only improved with the addition of Tate and Ebron so I’d say the results are actually understated. If Tate was not in Detroit this season they may have the leagues worst offense without Calvin.

        I think that further proves that his #1 ranking last year was well justified given their performance without him this year. He had 329 yards and 2 TDs through three games so had he not been injured the last 4 weeks I’m guessing this article wouldn’t have been written or at least wouldn’t try to make the case that Brown is the best WR in the NFL.

        • DrAWNiloc

          “…at this point in time.”

          “Just looking at last year…”

          We are speaking in two different tenses.

          • Dohkay

            If Calvin is healthy like he was through 3 games he’d be on pace to eclipse 2013. The only way Brown is better is if Calvin is hurt.

          • DrAWNiloc

            It seems all evaluations of Calvin Johnson being with “If healthy…” This raises a practical question: “Is staying healthy part of the job?” If not, should we consider Greg Cook among the greatest QBs of all time?

            Personally, I prefer the bottom line reality. Even forgetting age and cap concerns for a moment, if Detroit were to offer Megatron for Antonio Brown today how much would the Lions have to add? A third round pick? A second rounder?

          • Dohkay

            Calvin has missed 8 games (so far) through 8 seasons. Brown has missed 3 games (so far) through 4 seasons (albeit his first he was used sparingly and I didn’t count any games missed as I’m not sure if it was injury or simply not playing). Calvin seems to be listed on the injury report more often than not but he usually plays and still performs at a high level.

            If we ignore age (26 vs 29 in favor of Brown) and cap hit (32M from 15-17 for Brown and 101M from 15-19 for Calvin) I think it would be asinine for the Lions to trade them straight up, much less have to give up picks. Again, if Calvin was healthy right now this wouldn’t even be a consideration.

          • DrAWNiloc

            Yes, but my point is that he’s so rarely 100%, and missed games are only one indication of injury (as we’re learning from his “decoy” appearances of late). Speaking of tenses, we wonder about his injuries so often–“if Calvin were healthy”–that sports writers are learning the subjunctive.

            Fans being what they are, I agree there’s no chance that either team would offer such a trade.

          • Dohkay

            Even with his injuries he has been the best WR in football. Last year he rarely practiced fully and still dominated. I think people are overreacting to his first major injury and once he comes back healthy after the bye week this will all be forgotten.

      • Chris

        He’s also a Detroit fan sooo….haha

        • Troll Chris

          You’re an idiot sooo….haha

          • Chris

            ISWYDT!!!!!!!!

    • Yonatan Bogale

      perennial top-5 unit??? seriously????

      • Dohkay

        Passing yards per game: 2011 – 4th, 2012 – 2nd, 2013 – 3rd. I’d say that makes them a top 5 unit in passing, wouldn’t you?

        • Dohkay is a bitch

          no it doesnt you fool. It means they pass much too often, have no running attack, or defense. Homer

          • Dohkay

            I would actually agree with you as prior to this year they did throw too much thanks to no running game —– wait, I’m talking to a low-life who made a troll account because he apparently can’t hide behind an anonymous Disqus username either… Nevermind!

            😉

          • Chris

            LOL!!!!

          • Troll Chris

            This just proves you’re Dohkay dumbass

          • Chris

            Who is Dohkay dumbass?

          • Troll Chris

            You

        • Yonatan Bogale

          sorry, but no. Seems like you think gaining a lot of yards means being very good at it. Their weak defense that couldnt prevent opponents from scoring and an below average running game forced Stafford to throw the ball. It resulted in a lot of yards but also in many Interceptions. Im sure you can remember some of those thrown interceptions to C. Johnson in double and triple coverage.
          A good unit has to be efficient which wasnt the case with the Lions until now.
          We can discuss that their pass-rush is a perennial top-5 unit, but their offense?? Never was and still isnt

          • Dohkay

            I guess I should have clarified that I was looking solely at passing yards given that’s all Calvin can really do… Calvin cannot improve the running game (directly) or improve the defense. However, with Calvin, the Lions routinely finished in the top 5 in passing yards. Through three games they were seemingly on pace to continue that. Then he got hurt and they no longer have a competent passing attack unless Golden Tate can run for 65 yards after a catch.

            I also wouldn’t call the 2014 Lions offense efficient. They’re 31st in rush yards per game and 25th in PPG. If they didn’t have Golden Tate their 13th rank in pass yards per game would likely be far worse. Calvin IS the Lions offense.

          • Dohkay

            By the way, kind of funny that people still think the Lions had a weak defense last year. They were 15th in points allowed last season (despite an offense that turned the ball over multiple times per game). The offense was the problem last year (and continues to be the problem this year).

          • Yonatan Bogale

            now what? First a perennial top-5 unit especially the pass offense and now defense? Why not say SB-champ caliber on special teams, lol?

          • Dohkay

            Nowhere did I hint at top 5 defense last year. Merely pointing out that their “weak defense” wasn’t weak (and was much better than a weak Green Bay defense)… lol!

          • Yonatan Bogale

            pointless discussion here. Im out.

    • STICKERS ARE UGLY

      NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO…he is a great WR…but stafford is inefficient an the team is not top 5, are you kidding? On top of that the defense is nasty in all regards this year which is helping this mediocre offense get by for now.

      Calvin Snap Count

      Game 1 = 54 (35pts) 81%
      Game 2 = 62 (7 pts) 86%
      Game 3 = 57 (19) 76%
      Game 4 = 37 (24) 57%
      Game 5 = 28 (14) 45% of offensive snaps
      Game 6 = 0 (17)
      Game 7 = 0 (24)

      In the games he has been in this year the Lions average 19.8 pts per game and are 3-2…in the two games he has not even stepped on the field the Lions are 2-0 are averaging 20.5 pts per game…

      • Dohkay

        Calvin was injured in the second half of the GB game and a decoy in games 4 and 5. You can pretty much count him as sitting out for those 2 games (which hurt the Lions since defenses figured out he wasn’t going to be a deep threat) and they were his lowest production games of his career. You’re also trying to claim that a grand total of 0.7 points means the Lions were more efficient. Ok…

        You are the only person in the world that would claim the Lions are better off without him playing. Congratulations.

  • Oh Yeah

    Brown and Jordy Nelson are the top two best performing WRs right now.

    • Kevin

      Yes that is a fact but who do you take. I’d take Nelson over Brown, honestly.

      I’d also like to know who has seen more double teams, safety over top etc. It seems like every week when Nelson makes a big play it is with a constant safety over the top. Look at his big reception last week along with the one against the Jets. Both went for TD’s after beating the CB and evading the Safety.

      • STICKERS ARE UGLY

        No way, Antonio makes Ben look good, and Rodgers makes Jordy look good..also jordy has randall cobb who would be a #1 on several NFL teams…Antonio has Wheaton LMAO

        • Kevin

          So Jordy Nelson only looks good because he has Rodgers. That is ridiculous. Nelson has some of the best hands and is probably the best perimeter WR in the NFL.

          Big Ben is considered one of the better QB’s in the NFL and has been for quite awhile or before Brown was even in this league. Rodgers is better by quite a bit but he really is more than 99% of the QB’s in this league.

          Look what Nelson did last year without Rodgers for half the season. He still was on pace for a 1k yard season without Rodgers and along with Lacy completely carried the Packers offense. GB was also without Cobb for those games. He was a great WR without Rodgers and Cobb so your point becomes moot. Cobb was actually struggling for most of this season and just recently started performing like he should. 5 of the first 6 games saw Cobb not reach 60 yards in a game even though Nelson was seeing all the double teams and Cobb was a lot of times matched up with Safeties and LB’s.

          Nelson is also the highest graded WR in the NFL according to PFF and was the 2nd highest graded WR last season(I believe it was 2nd last year) with Flynn and Tolzien throwing him the ball..

        • Kevin

          I just don’t see Cobb as being a factor in this discussion. It would be different if teams were shifting their defense to Cobb and leaving Nelson on an island but that is far from the case. Nelson is seeing all the double teams, safety over the top etc while Cobb has actually been left alone with Safeties and LB’s.

          Cobb is a very good WR but should be much better than he has performed this year. He actually struggled for much of this season. He has been able to catch TD’s but outside of that hasn’t done much else.

          defenses know the ball is coming to Nelson yet still can’t stop him. When a WR is consistently beating both a WR and FS then it has a lot more to do with him than the QB or what other WR’s are lined up on the field with him.

          • ABdropkick

            You should watch a Steelers game sometime if you think 450 yards and 8 TD’s is struggling. That’s almost twice as many yards as any Steelers wide receiver besides Brown. The whole rest of our receiving core has 6 TD’s

      • wisconsinsteelerfan

        I don’t agree with that guy, in spite of being a Steelers fan. While I would still take Brown over Nelson, that’s not a shot at Jordy. He’s easily one of the best in the NFL – and while Rodgers makes him look good on occasion, Mr. Nelson has bailed out his QB a time or two as well.

        You really can’t go wrong with either of these guys, but AB just has such an extreme level of preparation off the field and consistency on it – it doesn’t get better than that. Maybe it’s just personal preference, but I would have to choose AB over Nelson.

    • Andrew Luck

      TY Hilton?

      • eYeDEF

        What about him?