Analysis Notebook: Week 7
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. 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:
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:
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 areusually 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