Antonio Brown is great because he can be perfect. As Patriots coach Bill Belichick explained to reporters earlier this season, the Pittsburgh receiver’s routes feature elite technical skill. Defenders can’t back off and give Brown space because he runs too well with the ball. But they can’t get too close, either, because hardly any corner can stay with Brown long enough to prevent him from getting behind his man.
Antonio Brown is also great because he can be imperfect. Ask defensive backs what about Brown confounds them, and they point to the moments that are unplanned. When things go right for Brown, he’s close to unstoppable; when things go wrong, though, he can be even harder to cover. It’s nearly impossible to take Brown out of the game, and that makes the 28-year-old out of Central Michigan one of the prime candidates to dominate these NFL playoffs.
“He’s a hell of a guy to cover,” says Titans defensive back Jason McCourty. “He can beat you deep, beat you on the short route, and once he gets the ball in his hands he’s as good as a running back. And the added ingredient is that sometimes you have to cover all of that for 15 seconds because Ben Roethlisberger can keep the play alive.”
Brown forces his defender to deal with all of his specialty moves — jab steps and sharp cuts, for instance — repeatedly on each play, and, typically, misery ensues for that corner. That’s no accident. Brown says that once or twice a week, he and Roethlisberger work on what to do after a play breaks down in a game. The key? “Just getting back into Ben’s field of vision,” Brown says. “You know where his eyes are going, so you just have to know how to get in front of him. The great thing about playing with Ben is that he’s not going to die easily. You just never give up on your route.”
Due to the commitment to that approach, when things go “wrong” for the Steelers, Brown still often makes extraordinary plays possible:
Plays like that transpire only a few times per game, but they take up a disproportionate amount of practice time for defenders, says Atlanta Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant. “We call it a ‘plaster’ drill,” he says. “As soon as the quarterback breaks from the pocket, you have to lock onto the nearest receiver. But that’s so hard with Antonio because he’s so quick from the first step, and you have to keep them in front of you. That’s hard.”
Trufant says that the first few steps after the play breaks down are ludicrously hard to keep up with because “you have to have everything going — your hips, eyes, feet.” Brown is particularly challenging to defend in this regard, because with each step he takes there’s a high probability he’ll gain separation. Belichick praised Brown’s ability to get so close that he almost steps on a defender’s toes before cutting, meaning the defender cannot anticipate the impending change of direction. It’s draining: McCourty says guarding Brown is more like playing basketball than football. Because Brown is targeted so often — at least 150 times a season in each of the past four campaigns — covering him seems like a continuous loop. “Every single snap you have to be on it,” McCourty says. During the 2016 regular season, Brown tied for leading all receivers in touchdowns of 20-plus aerial yards, with eight.
Add to all of that the fact that Brown is left-handed, which means he can catch passes at different angles (“It allows me to practice all of the catches,” Brown says), and it’s easy to wonder how defenders stop him at all. Of course, even when they do stop him, it’s not for long: In Pittsburgh’s wild-card win over Miami, Brown amassed 124 yards despite catching just five of his nine targets. He seemed able to score at will in the first quarter, and though his production slowed from there, Brown still became the first player with two 50-yard touchdowns in a playoff game since Randy Moss in 2001.
Of the players left in this postseason, Brown boasts the highest percentage of his team’s receptions, at 27.8. The other major weapon on Pittsburgh’s offense is Le’Veon Bell, perhaps the best running back in the NFL at the moment. Bell’s 167 yards last week were also pivotal in Pittsburgh’s clobbering of Miami, but when the Steelers need a quick score, they go to Brown.
Brown is fifth all-time in receiving yards per game among those who have played at least 30 games, but he’s not the only active player climbing up the charts. Six of the top seven players on that list are currently under contract with an NFL team, fueling a golden age of receivers. But Brown has a chance to separate from the pack this postseason, becoming the first member of that group to take over an entire playoffs. Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., A.J. Green, and Brown, the best of the best, have yet to be major contributors on Super Bowl teams. Even Brown was just an occasional playmaker on the 2010 Steelers squad that made it to the Super Bowl and lost; Beckham is currently better known for going on a boat with Trey Songz than leading his team to glory.
Brown’s quest continues Sunday, when his Steelers visit Kansas City. The Chiefs’ great secondary features corner Marcus Peters, who didn’t spend much time covering Brown in their earlier matchup, and safety Eric Berry. In the October meeting between the Chiefs and Steelers, Brown had two touchdowns in a game that was 22–0 after the first quarter. But the Chiefs defense has drastically improved since and is the league’s best at creating turnovers. Brown will be at the center of a matchup that could be determined by big plays: The Steelers are fourth in the league for receptions of 20 yards or more; the Chiefs, while not impenetrable, are tied for the league lead in defensive touchdowns.
If the already-famous Brown propels Pittsburgh to an AFC championship showdown, likely against New England, he’ll be primed for megastardom. He already has a catchphrase, “Business is booming.” He also has his own talk show, What It Is, on the Steelers’ website, where he interviews teammates in the locker room every few weeks about everything from food to their personal catchphrases. (Here’s Brown talking to players about the holidays and getting cornerback Artie Burns to reveal that his favorite holiday movie is Friday After Next.) Brown says that while he isn’t yet thinking about a future job in media, he likes talking to teammates to loosen them up — like when he devoted an entire segment to getting them to say his “Business is booming” catchphrase. He’s currently in commercials for Pepsi and Madden, and he competed on Dancing With the Stars in May (beating fellow NFL star Von Miller before being eliminated in the semifinals). He filmed a December 2015 commercial for Champs Sports with DJ Khaled, a friend of Brown’s since a high school acquaintance’s uncle introduced them in Miami.
Brown visited Khaled’s studio in 2009, and they’ve stayed in touch via text and social media since. When asked to name his top five entertainers, Brown says Khaled gets all five spots. “Khaled brings positivity around here,” Brown says, in a massive understatement. If anyone is ready to dominate the media landscape this summer in the same way Miller did after his Super Bowl triumph last season, it’s Brown, who seems to have as much charisma as route-running ability.
But in order to become perhaps the most famous non-quarterback in the NFL, he’ll have to win a few more games. “Records are great, but legendary players are judged by rings,” Brown says when asked what his goals are. That’s noble, but records are within his reach as well. He’s 11th among active players in receptions, with 632, and all of the pass catchers in front of him entered the league at least four seasons earlier than he did. The NFL is enjoying an era of passing prominence, with incredible talent and innovative schemes leading to more aerial production than ever before, and Brown is one of its kings. Yet he swears he’s not focused on Jerry Rice’s career-reception record of 1,549, or any other statistic.
“All I want to do is outdo myself,” Brown says. “I just want to be better than I was last year, every year.” Brown hasn’t just outdone himself; he’s outdone most of his theoretical peers from the past and present. Rice didn’t record his first 100-reception season until his sixth year in the league, at age 28. Brown is 28 now, in his seventh season, and he’s topped 100 receptions in four consecutive campaigns. He’s at the forefront of the golden age of receiving, not only because he’s the best route runner of his generation, but because his team has built a passing game around throwing to him just about all of the time. And, despite the riskiness of the strategy, he’s also the lifeblood of the Steelers’ special teams. On a hot August day during training camp in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a fan yelled that Brown should stop returning punts because he’s too valuable. “Fuck that,” Brown yelled back. “I can do it all.”
That ability to do it all is what scares defenders. The Chiefs will have to figure out a way to stop him Sunday if they hope to advance in the playoffs — and once they’ve identified it, they’ll need to come up with about 10 more plans. Because for Brown, business is booming.