Is Antonio Brown a true No. 1 wideout? The Pittsburgh Steelers appear to have little choice but to find out.
As expected, the Steelers let receiver Mike Wallace leave in free agency, where he then landed with the Miami Dolphins. That makes Brown the Steelers' best wideout currently on the roster and he's almost certain to have an increased workload in 2013 now that Wallace is gone.
In 2012, Wallace was the Steelers' most-targeted receiver, with 119 passes thrown his way. Brown, however, also saw his fair share of targets, with 105. With 14 fewer targets, Brown also managed to catch more passes than Wallace, notching 66 receptions to Wallace's 64.
There's little concern that Brown will be able to handle having increased attention from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In fact, Brown had 123 total targets in 2011, more than Wallace in 2012.
One concern about the Steelers' transition to Brown being their top receiver is his ability to catch the deep ball. Wallace was a deep threat on nearly every play, owing primarily to his impressive speed. Brown, however, is nearly as speedy as Wallace and his numbers from 2012 reflect it. Though his yards per reception were just 11.9 compared to Wallace's 13.1, he had 10 receptions of 20 or more yards, while Wallace had nine, despite Wallace being thrown deep passes twice as many times (subscription required).
In 2011, with Bruce Arians as offensive coordinator, downfield passing held a higher priority. Both Brown and Wallace had 18 receptions of 20 or more yards, with Brown's average yards per reception being 6.1 and Wallace's 16.6. Indeed, there's not too big of a difference between Brown and Wallace aside from two inches in height.
The main question, however, is whether Brown simply benefited from Wallace drawing so much defensive attention or if he's capable of winning battles in his own right when he's considered the top threat.
Because Wallace and Brown were both so dangerous, and because the Steelers were able to field other receiving threats like tight end Heath Miller and fellow wideout Emmanuel Sanders, the amount of talent on the field necessarily spread defenses thin.
That's not to say that neither Wallace nor Brown saw their fair share of double- or triple-coverage—they most certainly did—but the numbers game generally fell in the Steelers' favor in many passing situations, resulting in Brown and Wallace each having a defender assigned to them and then another defensive back trying to protect a zone in support.
Without Wallace this season, Brown may find himself better covered more often unless Sanders or another receiver can step up and occupy the defense the way that the Wallace-Brown combo did. This is especially worth noting because Miller may not be ready to play at the start of the season, having suffered a torn ACL at the end of 2012.
With fewer big-play receiving threats on the field, defenses will be able to key on Brown more heavily, which means he'll have to fight harder for catches and use his speed as a weapon in order to do so. That's something he hasn't yet been asked to do in his career in Pittsburgh and certainly represents a major unknown. At the same time, however, it could benefit players like Sanders or Jerricho Cotchery.
Another issue is touchdowns—Brown had only five in 2012 to Wallace's eight, and only two in 2011 while Wallace again had eight. This may not be an issue with Brown himself, but rather just a product of how the Steelers have handled their passing offense with both him and Wallace on the field.
Examining Wallace's and Brown's targets and receptions by direction points not to Brown being unable to fill that deep scoring role that was Wallace's but rather that the Steelers simply didn't need him to do so. After all, why have two quite talented receivers doing the same thing when you can have them doing two different things, giving defenses more to plan and adjust for in games?
Wallace had 31 targets of 20 or more yards while Brown had 16, though Brown could have easily handled that many deep passes thrown his way. He'll certainly see more of them with Wallace no longer around, and with neither his speed nor his hands an issue, the touchdowns will rise as well.
The fact that Brown is an overall better route-runner than Wallace made him better suited to handle a variety of routes. You can see it in the division of the direction and depth of his targets last season.
Wallace's routes are concentrated around certain areas—deep, in the middle of the field between zero and nine yards and outside the numbers between 10 and 19 yards. Brown's, however, are pretty well divided between different levels on the field as well as directions.
Passes up to nine yards in the middle of the field appear to be the favored throwing area for Roethlisberger and also represent the crux of Todd Haley's ball-control, short-passing game plan. Wallace had 31 targets in the middle of the field in that range last year while Brown had 17. Expect that to be the greatest area of Brown's targets again this year, with the numbers increasing to a Wallace-like level.
As long as Brown remains a fast, physical, sure-handed receiver, he should adapt well to Wallace no longer being on the Steelers roster. He's very similar to Wallace in profile though he's actually a bit more versatile, thanks to his strong route running. The nature of Haley's offense also serves his talents better than Wallace.
The only worry is how much coverage Brown will draw without Wallace on the field and with Miller potentially being sidelined for part of the season while he continues to recover.
If Sanders and the other Steelers' receiving targets can also hold up their end of the bargain, Brown should be able to transition to being the team's No. 1 wideout without much trouble.