The Pittsburgh Steelers had a decision to make last offseason. There was no way they could afford to sign wide receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, so they had to pick one to keep and one to let walk. The Steelers opted to keep Brown and let Wallace leave.
As we approach Week 11 of the 2013 NFL season, it appears that the Steelers made the right decision. Brown has been remarkable in his No. 1 receiver role. Brown currently leads the league with 67 catches and has become the favorite target of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in a hurry. Brown only needs two more receptions on the season to match his season high.
But, what makes Brown so special? In a word, it's speed. This isn't speed like Wallace speed. Wallace was limited in his route tree and essentially outran the defender or nothing. Brown's speed allows him to utilize a much more diverse route progression. He's also smart. He works with Roethlisberger, and they have developed excellent chemistry.
Let's take a look at two plays from Sunday's win over the Buffalo Bills that really emphasize why Brown's game is so good.
At the snap, Brown drives hard off the ball. Roethlisberger is tracking Brown deep, and the Bills safety recognizes this and is sprinting over to help. The Bills cornerback got a nice jump and is running with Brown well. This means even when Brown overtakes him, the safety will be there to bracket him.
However, Brown and Roethlisberger both recognize this as well and answer. Roethlisberger makes a nice back-shoulder throw, Brown sticks his foot in the ground and they connect. Brown has created space to run after the catch, and the safety is neutralized in coverage.
However, sometimes, it's less about play design and more about Brown's skills. Let's break down another play.
Again at the snap, Brown comes hard off the ball. The Bills cornerback has cheated and is playing off. So when he turns to run, Brown is still a couple of steps behind him. The deep safety isn't coming over, so this is going to be all on that cornerback. This is why the corner is off and running. He does not want to be beaten deep.
Brown recognizes this and breaks off his route. Again, his ability to go from full speed to a stop and into a break is much better this season. When Brown makes his cut, he's almost stride for stride with the cornerback. When he makes the catch on the deep out, he's got a six-yard cushion and the cornerback has no shot.
In just these two plays, you can see how Brown has improved his routes, his decision making and his football acumen. The sky is the limit for him in this system. Brown's game has proven to be much more than just go routes and shallow crosses. Brown can still outrun defenders, but he can now use his speed to create space, find voids in zones and dictate where he gets the football.