Despite only playing in eleven games throughout the 2015-2016 NFL season, Ben Roethlisberger was able to put up great numbers with Antonio Brown. Brown totaled for 1864 yards last year in that time and obliterated teams for a third consecutive of gaining over 1400 yards.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' offense is poised to be the NFL's best in 2016 even without wide receiver Martavis Bryant available. We have continued to cover the potential of the Steelers' offense with our "Path to 500" series in the Steelers Film Room on Behindthesteelcurtain.com in an effort to illustrate the theory that Pittsburgh will score over 500 points during the upcoming season; a feat that the franchise has never accomplished before and one which has been accomplished with more frequency by teams in the NFL in recent years.
While we have covered various topics in this series to support the notion that Pittsburgh could put up over 500 points in a season (an average of just over 31 points per game), we have covered the impact of the return of Le'Veon Bell, the existence of a deep threat in the passing game regardless of Bryant, as well as other topics.
What may be the biggest factor in the Steelers achieving this, is Antonio Brown and his uncanny connection with his quarterback, Roethlisberger.
Brown is the best route runner in the NFL and possibly one of the best to ever play the game. Regular routes become nightmares for opponents. Part of what makes covering Brown impossible at times is how he can make so many of his routes play off of each other. On this play he faces Chris Harris Jr., a cornerback considered among the NFL's elite whom had not surrendered a touchdown to an opposing receiver in over a calendar year before this play.
Roethlisberger and Brown often complete quick routes in tight spaces which force defensive backs to react quickly and take guesses down the field. This sets up more opportunities for double moves and faked routes that create larger openings for completions. Here Brown sets up Harris Jr. with a move that shows him going for a back shoulder pass to the front pylon of the end zone. Harris Jr. falls for the move and Brown can go for the back of the end zone for the touchdown.
While many teams have moments like this from their receivers, the frequency at which Pittsburgh displays this between Brown and Roethlisberger is extremely high in both when it happens and when it succeeds.
Roethlisberger's shiftiness mixes perfectly with Brown's route running
Roethlisberger's career has been defined by many different attributes that have helped him establish the reputation of one of the best starting quarterbacks in the league. As he has improved from his rookie season in 2004, one thing that has always been something that Roethlisberger could rely on was his ability to buy time in the pocket for his receivers to get open.
In the past he would often find Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes or even Heath Miller who crept open behind defenses for big plays. These days Roethlisberger seems to find Brown working at all times whenever an initial play has broken down and the scheme resorts to a sort of backyard style of football. Here Brown's initial route was sniffed out, but his second move opened up even more space and Roethlisberger found him just in time for a crucial third down conversion.
Belief in each other in clutch situations
Throughout the 2008-2009 NFL playoffs Roethlisberger's connection with Santonio Holmes became obvious to the entire league as he scored a key touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship and the winning touchdown of Super Bowl XLIII. Holmes was Roethlisberger's go-to guy in clutch situations and earned the Super Bowl MVP.
Brown has become an even better version of what Holmes was able to bring for Roethlisberger in clutch times. Even as a rookie he made key receptions during the Steelers' playoff run to Super Bowl XLV. Today Brown is often the player which is relied upon to make key plays in important situations.
The above play was a fourth down situation in the playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals last season. Brown's double move was made to look so easy, as he often does, but also breaks down his defender to provide an injured Roethlisberger with an easy window to complete the pass. Throughout last season, Roethlisberger relied on Brown on third and fourth downs, as well as situations which big play opportunities were dialed up in the offense.
Expect even more in 2016
It may seem difficult to imagine more success for Brown and Roethlisber than 1864 yards, but at the rate which they performed last season, it would be very reasonable to suggest that the two could have set an NFL record by surpassing Calvin Johnson's 1,964 yards from the 2012 season.
More important than records however is how many points Brown can help the Steelers score. This is not to say that Brown must double his ten touchdowns from 2015-2016, but he does have to be more contributory to the overall success of the offense. Let him and Roethlisberger spend the entire upcoming season together, and this could be a record setting year that earns both players reserved spots in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.