2014 Steelers season scenarios: Antonio Brown leads league in receptions

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

It's not a question of Brown's ability or the focus of the offense, but getting him around 115 catches, a general range at which a receiver would lead the NFL, just may not happen with the balance the Steelers are looking for in 2014.

Scenario: Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown leads the NFL in receptions.

Why it will happen: The Steelers' revitalized running game will draw tighter defense around the line of scrimmage, but knowing the Steelers will work in an option to get the ball to Brown on short, quick throws in any situation they see a defense playing off him in single coverage, he will still be utilized at a rate of 10 targets a game.

Brown finished with a career-high 110 catches last season, three catches behind NFL leader Pierre Garcon (and two from Hines Ward's franchise record) in Washington. The positive of that is the obvious level of production he had throughout the season, but what's most important is the fact Brown still averaged 13.6 yards per catch - the highest average among the top five players in receptions in 2013 - showing he was used both deeper down the field and he was able to make something out of throws he caught at or around the line of scrimmage.

The difference between that kind of average and one in the 11 yards per catch range is the ability to make a defender miss and go for bigger yards. Brown did that often in 2013, becoming one of the most difficult coverage assignments 1-on-1 in the NFL.

While there is some talent around him, he outpaced Emmanuel Sanders (now with the Denver Broncos) by over 50 targets last season, and there's no reason to think other receivers will dig too much into his total this year.

Why it won't happen: His secret is out. Teams may simply commit to defending Brown close to the line of scrimmage, taking away the Steelers' ability to throw short to him, thus limiting the targets of the Steelers' most dangerous offensive playmaker. That in turn would draw down his number of targets.

A healthy Heath Miller, who spent the bulk of the 2013 season working on the field to return fully from a torn ACL in 2012, will likely see more targets this season than the 78 he had last season. In 15 games and fully healthy under Todd Haley in 2012, Miller had 101 targets (6.7 per game), and was named to the AFC Pro Bowl team.

The same will go for running back Le'Veon Bell, who, over a 16-game season, was getting the ball at a pace that would have put him among the top receiving running backs in the NFL. Sanders' targets will be made up, and probably surpassed, by a combination of Miller, Bell and free agent acquisition Lance Moore, who will likely see the most time of any receiver opposite Brown.

Keys: Attention to Brown may be the simple reason why he doesn't re-break the franchise record for receptions, but it seems likely, considering his age (he'll be 26 on July 10), his ability and the chemistry he and Ben Roethlisberger have, he'll finish in the 90 catch range this year. The league leader will likely finish around the 108-115 range, if not higher (New England's Wes Welker in 2011 and Detroit's Calvin Johnson in 2012 took the crown with 122 catches), but if Brown was to ascend to that level, he'll have to simply continue doing a lot of what he is currently doing. He's shown the versatility to run deeper routes as well as serve as the team's de facto wide running back, taking screens and making something out of them.

A healthy Miller will encourage the team to run more of them with Brown lined up as the Z receiver (closer to the line on the strong side), as the team ran screens behind Miller's downfield blocking ability to a high degree of success in 2012. Ultimately, it will come down to opportunity, which seems to suggest the plays just simply won't be there often enough to get him that many catches. Still, a total of around 100 catches for a second consecutive year is unprecedented in Pittsburgh, and would certainly be worth the effort of getting him the ball.

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