I haven’t had much to say around BTSC lately. The Antonio Brown situation wasn’t my cup of tea. In a Reality TV world, the AB drama rendered the Steelers the worst sort of entertainment. I just wanted it to go away.
With the completion of the trade that sends the part-mercurial, part-destructive and completely self-absorbed receiver across the continent, it has. Sort of. We will still endure the fallout - an endless stream of media soliloquy’s on how the Raiders fleeced us, how AB got his way, who we will bring in to replace him, how the team will fare in the post-AB era, etc. All of that is inevitable. But he is gone. At last. And for that we can at least bid adieu to a long and embarrassing chapter in our history.
I’m not writing now to gloss over the damage the episode did to our franchise or the way it sets back the product we will put on the field next fall. I certainly see the down side to losing AB. But in every loss there is opportunity. That rings true here as well. The Steelers may or may not be better in 2019 than they were in 2018. I have no idea. I do know, however, that certain members of the organization have a tremendous opportunity to establish, or in some cases re-establish, their legacies here.
Mike Tomlin has the opportunity to take control of the locker room again by instilling an organizational structure and discipline that seems to be lacking. Kevin Colbert has the opportunity to regain his reputation as an elite GM by parlaying his wealth of draft picks into smart acquisitions. Juju Smith-Schuster has the opportunity to prove he is a legitimate number one receiver.
No one, though, has more to gain (or lose) in the post-AB era than Ben Roethlisberger. The opportunity before the once and future franchise quarterback is prolific. Here are some thoughts on what he might do with it.
It wasn’t exactly the War of the Roses, but Roethlisberger clearly emerged as the victor in the power struggle between he and AB for control of the Steelers. AB may have “won” by getting his trade and new contract. But that was only after the Steelers’ brass made it clear they were hitching their wagon to Big Ben.
This is no cause for celebration on Big Ben’s part. By “winning” the unquestioned leadership of the football team he helped drive out a future Hall of Fame receiver. He will need to produce another Super Bowl run or that leadership, and the price the franchise paid to grant it to him, will long be questioned.
It is tempting to say the Steelers path to another title run is significantly harder now that Brown is gone. The void his departure has left is no doubt significant. Here, though, is where Roethlisberger has an opportunity to reinvent the offense in a way that may ultimately lead to it becoming more effective.
Since emerging as the Steelers top receiver in 2013, Brown received 1,026 targets in 92 total games. That’s an average of over 11 a game. Roethlisberger quarterbacked 89 games in that span and averaged 37 passes per game. So roughly one of every three throws Roethlisberger made over the past six years was intended for Brown.
By comparison, Julio Jones, who has averaged 10.5 targets per game since 2014, is the only other player who is even close to Brown’s target rate over that time. Jones’s targets translate to 27% of Matt Ryan’s throws, or roughly 6% fewer throws than Brown received from Roethlisberger. In short, no team relied more heavily on a single receiver than the Steelers did on Brown. And it wasn’t even close.
Brown’s excellence made him the obvious focal point of the Steelers passing attack. But Brown’s target rate as a percentage of Roethlisberger’s throws decreased each of the past three seasons, from its absurd peak of 41.1% in 2015 to 30.2 in 2016, 29.0 in 2017 and a six-year low of 24.8% this past season. This decline seems to have been a point of contention for Brown, who (likely) resented how Smith-Schuster’s emergence ate into his targets.
Brown’s catch percentage declined with Smith-Schuster’s emergence as well. From 2014-2016, Brown caught 371 of 528 throws from Roethlisberger for a catch percentage of 70.2. In 2017-2018, that number fell to 61.9%. Meanwhile, Smith-Schuster’s catch percentage for his first two seasons was an impressive 68.9, or just 1.3% below what Brown’s was from 2014-2016.
The fact that Juju’s catch percentage has been higher than AB’s the past two seasons is telling. Catch percentage is not an arbitrary statistic. Completions equal trust between a quarterback and a receiver. It is significant that AB’s catch percentage decreased by almost ten percent in 2017-2018. This is likely the product of several factors: a concerted effort on the part of defenses to take Brown away; a disconnect between the quarterback and receiver; and an attempt by Roethlisberger to force the ball to Brown to keep the receiver happy. Although that last factor is speculation, anyone who watched the Steelers the past couple of seasons had to have noticed the number of times Roethlisberger threw to Brown despite tight or even double coverage. Maybe Big Ben trusted Brown to make a play in those situations. Or maybe he just wanted to keep 84 off his back.
All of these numbers provide two interesting takeaways. One, that AB, although still an elite receiver, is no longer producing at the level he was in his peak 2014-2016 years. And two, that Roethlisberger has already begun to transition away from his reliance on Brown as the unquestioned focal point of the passing game.
Roethlisberger’s QBR in 2018 was 73.0, the highest of his career. His 67.0 completion percentage was just .1 shy of a career high as well. Having two great receivers in Brown and Juju certainly helped. So, it seems, did spreading the ball around.
Here we find both the challenge and the opportunity awaiting Roethlisberger. Departing with Brown are roughly ⅓ of Big Ben’s targeted throws from the past six years. A veteran receiver (John Brown? Randall Cobb?) will likely be brought in via free agency to fill some of that void. A reasonably high draft pick should be expected at the position as well. Maybe the Steelers will even shock the world by packaging some of their new draft capital and going up in the first round to get the tantalizing D.K. Metcalf (not likely, but boy would that make the splash so many Steeler fans desperately want from Kevin Colbert).
Whatever they do, there are plenty of options on the current roster to replace some of Brown’s production while making the offense less predictable. If Roethlisberger feels free to throw the ball where he wants and isn’t hamstrung by having to placate an egocentric diva, he can take what defenses give him or find the best matchups. When he famously said, “I should have just thrown the ball to Juju all four downs” after forcing a throw to Brown that resulted in a game-ending goal-line interception in Denver, what he may have been saying was, “I shouldn’t have worried about AB complaining he didn’t get the ball at the end. I should have gone where I thought we had the best chance to succeed.”
Even without Brown, the Steelers have players who create mismatches and matchup problems. Assuming Juju draws some of the safety help Brown did, Vance McDonald should remain effective up the seam and in the middle of the field. Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer are excellent in the slot and James Washington, though still raw, should build on his solid finish to 2018 by making a significant leap in his sophomore season. As mentioned above, the Steelers will surely add speed on the outside either through free agency or the draft to push Washington. James Conner and Jaylen Samuels each proved to be reliable receivers out of the backfield as well. Bottom line - the talent level is not better without AB but it isn’t poor, either. And the fact Roethlisberger now has the opportunity to distribute the football at his discretion may actually make the offense more efficient.
Consider the following:
In the Steelers most prolific offensive performance of 2018, a 52-21 drubbing of Carolina in week nine, Roethlisberger was a wickedly efficient 22-25 passing for 328 yards, 5 touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating. Josh Dobbs threw two passes in relief, bringing their total passing attempts to 27. Of those 27 attempts, Brown was targeted on just six of the throws, or 22%. Juju got five targets, McDonald and Samuels received four each and the other eight targets were spread among six receivers.
That Carolina game was not an outlier. In the early-season win in Tampa, Juju and McDonald both had 100 yard receiving games while Brown contributed just 50 yards. Roethlisberger was an impressive 30-38 for 353 yards as the offense racked up 30 points. In the crucial December win over the Patriots, Brown was targeted on just 7 of 33 throws (21%) while Smith-Schuster received the most targets (10) and rookie Jaylen Samuels took on a featured role.
By contrast, in the 16-13 win over Jacksonville, where the offense looked anemic for 3 1⁄2 quarters before rallying late, Brown was targeted 13 times, by far the most on the team, but caught just five for an inefficient 38% catch percentage. In the loss in Baltimore in week four, Brown got 11 targets but again caught just five. The offense sputtered to 284 yards and 14 points. Brown had some monster games, of course, none bigger than the 14-185 on 19 targets he put up against the Saints. But the Steelers weren’t always efficient when they force-fed him the football. And they proved they could be dangerous on offense when they distributed it evenly.
For naysayers who point to the offense’s uninspiring performance in the season finale against Cincinnati as evidence of what we might look like without Brown, remember this: Brown walked out on the team midway through that week, after the game-plan had already been installed, and the players did not know for certain he was ruled out until the day of the game. That took a toll on the team from both an emotional and a scheme perspective. With OTAs, mini-camp and training camp yet to come, and with the emotional baggage of the Brown saga lifted at last, the Steelers will have plenty of time to compensate. The 2019 offense should bear little resemblance to the one that stumbled to a close against the Bengals.
AB is gone and the Steelers are now definitively Ben Roethlisberger’s team. How Big Ben handles the responsibility placed upon his broad shoulders remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure - the opportunity before the franchise QB to create a fresh, diverse Steeler offense that utilizes all the weapons at its disposal is a great one. Let’s hope he makes the most of it.