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Antonio Brown: Why He's the NFL's Top Dog at Wide Receiver

Michael Whitlow@@MAWhitlowFeatured ColumnistDecember 8, 2015

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 6: Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates a third quarter touchdown during the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field on December 6, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers faced a 3rd-and-19 against division rival the Baltimore Ravens during the 2010 AFC divisional round with two minutes, seven seconds left in the fourth quarter.

Baltimore rushed three against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and dropped eight defenders in coverage.

The Steelers gained 58 yards on third down and would score 46 seconds to win the game, 31-24.

How?

Because they had one of the fastest players in football before he truly developed into one of the league's most dangerous players.

On 3rd-and-19, Antonio Brown was set up wide right in the shotgun formation against former All-Pro cornerback Lardarius Webb. Brown beat Webb down the field for a 58-yard gain that helped set up the game-winning touchdown.

That was Antonio Brown the rookie.

Antonio Brown in his sixth NFL season is the best wide receiver the game has to offer, despite the players themselves ranking him No. 2 behind Calvin Johnson for NFL Network's Top 100 players list prior to this season.

In Week 12, Brown was limited to just six catches for 51 yards against the rugged Seattle Seahawks defense in a 39-30 loss. His numbers weren't much better when he was lined up in front of Richard Sherman.

A week later, Brown bounced back and showed the entire country why he's the best the National Football League has to offer at wide receiver.

Born Salty @cjzero

Ride it, @AntonioBrown84 https://t.co/FKylt6Gq5O

The memory from Pittsburgh's 45-10 blowout of the Indianapolis Colts was Brown's hilarious—and rather painful-looking—leap into the goalpost after scoring on a 71-yard punt return. The result was the fact that Brown continues to be the catalyst in an offense that runs like a runaway freight train when the conductor is healthy under center.

It's simple to say that Brown is the biggest benefactor of production when Roethlisberger is in uniform and healthy. With big performances from Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant this season, it's becoming harder and harder to slow the Steelers down as the season nears the end.

But the big reason why Pittsburgh's offense has become so dynamic is because of the impact Brown can have on a game.

All it takes is one play.

Credit: YouTube

Brown is a lightning bolt off the line of scrimmage, so if you attempt to jam him and miss or give him a giant cushion to build his world-class speed like the play seen above, you're probably going to be giving up a big play.

Ask Webb.

If you worry about the deep threat, his flawless route running in the underneath routes allow him to get open on virtually every play. Trying to make a play defensively on Brown when he's got the ball in the open field is like Rocky Balboa trying to catch a chicken on the loose. It's not going to go well.

The more teams worry about Brown's playmaking, the more opportunities Bryant and Wheaton will have to burn secondaries across the league.

Since the AFL-NFL merger, only six players have caught two or more touchdowns and returned a punt for a touchdown in one game. Antonio Brown became the seventh player to do it in Week 13 against Indianapolis.

Brown's value runs so much deeper than just catches and yards. He's a gifted player who can strike at any time, and in terms of the best route-runners in the league, not many rank higher than Brown.

Matt Miller @nfldraftscout

Antonio Brown is the best route-runner in the NFL. Showing amazing body control + concentration there too.

Earlier in the season, Brown earned the highest grade ever given out by Pro Football Focus in one game (plus-8.8) after a 17-catch, 284-yard performance against the Oakland Raiders in Week 9.

The most mind-boggling numbers are when you compare Brown's production to his nearest competition: Atlanta Falcons star receiver Julio Jones.

Jones leads the NFL in catches (102), receiving yards (1,338) and receiving yards per game (115.2). The guy right behind him in each of the categories? Antonio Brown.

Antonio Brown vs. Julio Jones in 2015
PlayerReceptionsYardsYards Per GameTouchdownsAll-Purpose YardsYards From ScrimmagePFF Grades
Brown931,310109.271,519 (tops in the NFL)1,33897.8 (2nd among WRs)
Jones1021,338115.261,3381,33898.5 (1st among WRs)
NFL.com and Pro Football Focus

Despite the rough four weeks without Roethlisberger under center earlier in the season that resulted in no touchdowns for Brown in those games, Brown's production continues to hold serve against Jones.

If Brown stays on the pace he's on (Brown is averaging 7.75 catches per game for 109.2 yards this season) through the final four weeks, he'll likely finish with 124 catches for around 1,746 yards—the fourth-most receiving yards in NFL history for one season.

The only three wide receivers who have ever reached those marks in one season? Calvin Johnson (2012), Marvin Harrison (2002) and Jerry Rice (1995). Rice is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Harrison is a semifinalist for Canton again this year and Johnson has been one of the league's premier weapons for the better part of the last decade.

Jones is a fantastic talent in his own right, but this two-plus-year run for Brown in Pittsburgh is reaching historic proportions.

Brown should easily catch 100-plus passes for the third year in a row, but he could also become the first player in NFL history with three straight seasons of 100 or more catches with at least 1,499 receiving yards.

(Brown caught 110 passes during the 2013 season but fell short of the 1,500-yard plateau by a single yard.)

Not even Rice did what Brown is attempting to do in the final four weeks of the season for a Pittsburgh team that appears to be clicking on all cylinders offensively in the thick of the AFC playoff race.

If you're progressing toward something that arguably the greatest player of all time never did, you've made a jump that would put a celebratory one into the goalpost to shame.

The explosion for Brown and the Pittsburgh offense comes at a time when they will play the AFC's top two seeds—Cincinnati and Denver—in consecutive weeks.

Both teams probably hope that their meetings with Brown and the high-powered Steelers will be the last time this season that they meet.

No team is going to want to see Antonio Brown running "go" routes past their defensive backs in January.

Ask Baltimore.

Stats via Pro-Football-Reference.com, NFL.com and Pro Football Focus.

Michael Whitlow is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MAWhitlow.

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