Sunday night’s loss for the Pittsburgh Steelers became something of a coming-out party for wide receiver Antonio Brown. After letting Mike Wallace go via free agency, the team was counting on Brown to fill the WR1 role.
Against the Bears, Brown did just that, finishing with nine catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns, as recorded by ESPN.
But what changed? After taking a closer look it, was a mix of intelligent play design as well as excellent execution by Brown and the rest of the offense.
Here before the snap we see Brown at the top of the screen. The Bears have schemed it to roll the safety to his side to help the Bears cornerback deep. This is a sound strategy to give the corner deep help against the speedy Brown.
But what the Steelers do is send Brown and Sanders on shallow crossing routes instead. This creates immediate confusion with the Bears defense. The deep safety is completely removed from coverage because of the design of the play.
At this point, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has multiple options. However, he chooses to wait for Brown to get a release on linebacker Lance Briggs who is stuck in a speed mismatch. Brown clears Briggs and is off to the races.
Here is another look the Bears gave and how the Steelers dealt with it. Pre-snap we see Brown at the top of the screen with the Chicago Bears fielding two deep safeties. This is probably the best way to defend the deep speed of the Steelers.
But at the snap, the Bears safety bites on Roethlisberger looking to the left at wide Emmanuel Sanders, creating a void for Brown downfield. Roethlisberger sees Brown coming back to the middle and hits him with a strike. This is made possible in part by the safety on Brown's side has backtracked nearly 14 yards since the snap, allowing Brown plenty of room to work.
This time Brown is at the bottom of the screen, but the Bears have shown their hand with the safety rushing the line of scrimmage at the snap. This means Brown is going to have single coverage, and the other safety is on the opposite hash at the snap.
The safety tries to recover and trail the play, but Brown is too fast and, once he gets by the cornerback, the safety cannot recover in time. Roethlisberger makes the read on the single coverage and makes a perfect throw for the touchdown.
Going forward, the Steelers should be able to use the pre-snap reads of one or two deep safeties and help this passing game evolve. The key is the offensive line did just enough to allow Brown to get deep. Once he did, it was pitch and catch for big yardage.