Articles can be found everywhere about the statistical brilliance, and the elite production of No. 84, Antonio Brown. However, this article won't mention much about the box score. It also will not talk about his prominent place in Steelers lore among some of the incredibly talented receivers that came before him. The fact that he was undervalued coming out of Central Michigan somehow slipping into the sixth round won’t be mentioned after this. Nor his legendary work ethic, or the way he overcame a smaller than average stature and a difficult childhood. Those are all interesting aspects of Brown’s development, and are a google search away.
This article is about the experience of watching Brown perform his craft. The physical and mental expression of mastery over the wide receiver position that Steelers fans have learned to expect and the rest of the NFL has come to fear. The experience that causes neighbors to question the sanity of the author as he bellows and grunts in shock with bulging, protruding eyes trying to comprehend that a human could accomplish such a feat.
Watching game tape of Brown in 2015 is a joy, but one performance that really stood out was his game against the eventual champion Broncos during a crucial week 15 matchup. This was an interesting challenge for Brown and the Steelers because of the dominance the Broncos defense demonstrated over much of last year. However, the Steelers amassed 34 points against their vaunted opponents, and, as always, Brown was a key component.
His two touchdowns will, probably, be the plays that most fans remember from the game, but looking back it’s a slant route that went for 12 yards in the 1st quarter that demonstrate the qualities that Brown brings to his position.
It’s 1st and 10 on the Steelers 45 and Roethlisberger is in the Shotgun. Brown is split out wide to the right and he’s being covered by the, truly, formidable Chris Harris Jr., who is among the best athletes and cornerbacks in the NFL. Harris is playing about three yards off Brown giving him some space with which to work. Brown explodes of the line, and you can tell Harris is thinking 9 right off the bat with his hips opened ever so slightly to the sideline.
5 yards into the route Brown throws a devastating head and shoulders fake to the outside, and Harris is toast with his hips almost completely opened to the sideline Brown darts inside into a perfectly timed slant route that Roethlisberger delivers. In a true testament to Harris’s athleticism (and how good you have to be to get open in the NFL) he saves a big gain by getting his hips around and getting enough on Brown that his safety can come finish the tackle delivering a solid hit.
Brown pops up and gives us his signature 1st down celebration.
Now, this play is so illuminating because it demonstrates those qualities mentioned earlier that lead to fans, scouts, and defensive coordinators gaping in disbelief. For one, he has a near unique ability to avoid obstacles and move his body in space. In the NFL open real estate is at a premium, especially, when going up against an elite defensive team like the Broncos. Brown made an incredible, darting cut to beat Harris on this play. Kinetically, it takes a special human to accelerate to full speed in less than three yards, juke to the right, and without losing much speed flash his ankles, knees, and hips into the opposite direction showing great upper body mobility and hand eye coordination as he reaches back slightly to snag the pass.
Oh, and the focus and hand strength it takes to hold onto the screaming bullet of a pass coming out of No. 7’s right arm as you’re absorbing the force of a human missile attempting to dislodge the ball with a well timed tackle? That’s on display here, as well.
The dynamic skill set the Brown brings to the Steelers allows offensive coordinator Todd Haley to open up his playbook. Beautiful, intricate schemes don’t matter when receivers can’t create space and execute the game plan. 84 excels in this facet of the game running fantastic routes at the proper depth with regularity.
It’s also important to recognize the intelligence and field awareness is takes to play the wide receiver position at a high level. Reading coverage, and knowing how the play develops is how Brown finds so much space. Hauling in 350 passes in three years is remarkable, and it takes more than just elite acceleration to make that happen.
In many ways, his ability to destroy zone coverage is reminiscent of hall of fame inductee Marvin Harrison. According to the ambitious “Reception Perception” game charting project by NFL.com writer Matt Harmon Brown got open on 90% of the routes he ran against the zone. Not to mention that he was able to consistently produce on each of the routes he ran making him a matchup nightmare.
The Steelers are a franchise with a long, storied past of championships, hall of fame inductees, and high expectations for winning. As they continue on a quest to bring home the7th Lombardi trophy to Pittsburgh they have the benefit of an incredibly dynamic, explosive weapon in Antonio Brown. Pittsburgh looks forward to watching him work.