No one has missed Big Ben more than Antonio Brown

Ben Stockwell explains why Antonio Brown's consistent production has taken a dip with Michael Vick at QB.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

No one has missed Big Ben more than Antonio Brown

Aside from the man himself, no-one has suffered more at the hands of Ben Roethlisberger’s injury than star wide receiver Antonio Brown, who has struggled to put up big numbers with Michael Vick. Brown has collected only eight catches for 87 yards since Vick took over as Pittsburgh’s starter against the Ravens, a stat line he surpassed in all three of Roethlisberger’s starts this season, and 11 times last season.

So, what gives? Why can’t Mike Vick make use of arguably the league’s most dangerous receiver?

Very few teams can plug in a quarterback and sustain production in the same manner and volume for all receivers, so it is no real surprise to see Vick and Brown struggling to find an immediate rapport. On the surface, you would assume that Brown’s ability after the catch would make him an immediate magnet for Vick, allowing the wide receiver to work his magic. However, when you dig a little into their respective route profiles, you note that the routes that are most productive for Brown and Vick don’t necessarily pair up—not to mention that Vick’s inaccuracy further strains his ability to maximize Brown’s production.

Brown is a versatile receiver who can produce on a wealth of routes, highlighted by the fact that in the last two seasons (with Roethlisberger at quarterback), Brown has gained more than 200 yards on six different routes (hitch, go, out, crossing, slant, and post). Over the last three seasons (with three different teams) Vick has struggled to connect with these routes on three different teams, with his completion percentage around or below 50 percent on all but one of those routes (hitch).

Roethlisberger to Brown (2014 & 2015)

Route Attempts Completions Yards Yards after catch Touchdowns Interceptions
Hitch 34 26 307 85 1 2
Go 17 8 275 53 1 0
Out 31 21 27 41 2 0
Crosser 25 18 246 117 2 0
Slant 27 25 212 95 2 1
Post 12 9 205 20 1 1


Michael Vick (2013-2015)

Route Attempts Completions Yards Yards after catch Touchdowns Interceptions
Hitch 51 38 342 69 1 1
Go 27 8 302 51 1 1
Out 22 8 98 9 1 0
Crosser 44 26 324 175 1 2
Slant 20 10 94 30 0 1
Post 17 8 199 49 4 1

What is most surprising about how these route profiles match up is that the one route of Brown’s top six routes that Vick has a solid recent track record with (hitch), Vick has only targeted Brown on once in the last two games. Elsewhere, Vick’s struggles with accuracy have mired Brown’s production, with the Vick-Brown connection currently 0-for-2 on go routes, 0-for-3 on slants, and 2-for-5 on out routes. The clearest solution to this equation is also the only solution you cannot force, and that is that Michael Vick needs to pass the ball more accurately; but, if that aspect of his game hasn’t developed with a decade in the NFL, it’s not going to just because Antonio Brown and his fantasy owners need it to happen.

What Vick, Brown, and the Steelers’ play callers and designers need to work on to bring Brown back to prominence, at least from an efficiency stand point, is match strength with relative strength and try to get Brown running the routes that Vick can throw well. Vick has only targeted Brown on one hitch through two games—there needs to be more of those. In the last two seasons Brown has caught 29 screens for 187 yards; through two games with Vick, he has one catch for a loss of 5 yards, another untapped resource. The one that the Steelers have worked on in this combination is crossing routes, and here they just need patience as Brown’s 39 yard catch on Monday Night Football accounts for the bulk of the 51 yards on four catches these two have combined for on this route through two games.

Ultimately, if Vick remains under center this week (or beyond), it is going to be a painful period of production for both Antonio Brown and his fantasy owners. While the Steelers can work to tweak their passing game to get Brown running and targeted on routes that Vick is more comfortable hitting, they cannot fundamentally change the quarterback that Michael Vick is, and that is a quarterback who is not “high percentage” on many throws. Any time you bring in a backup quarterback, the offense has to change. For the Steelers, as we saw on Monday night, that change is to take the heavy lifting of the offense away from Antonio Brown and the passing game and put even more work on the shoulders of running back Le’Veon Bell. Likewise on the evidence of Monday Night, Bell is ready to carry that load while Brown waits for Roethlisberger’s return.

As of now, Michael Vick is still slated to start Sunday’s game against Arizona, although Roethlisberger did participate in practice this week.

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

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