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Antonio Brown Is Penning His Masterpiece

The Steelers don’t look so hot on offense, but their all-everything wideout is having a historic year. With a little luck, Brown could even break the single-season receiving record.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Antonio Brown is absurdly, ridiculously good at football. We’re all aware of this; he puts up incredible numbers, he scores touchdowns, he flying-karate-kicks hapless punters in the face. But unless you’re a religious reader of box scores, it feels like we’re overlooking Brown’s greatness this year. What he’s done so far has been obscured, or at least overshadowed, by a confluence of distracting factors.

Its starts with the Steelers’ disjointed and inconsistent start on offense. With a strong-armed quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, a dual-threat runner and pass catcher in Le’Veon Bell, a dangerous deep threat in Martavis Bryant, and a playmaking receiver in Brown all set to get back onto the field together, we expected this unit to produce fireworks. Instead, the offense has been middle of the pack in most traditional stats, ranking 22nd in points per game (19.7), 13th in yards per game (349.7), and tied for 13th in yards per play (5.3). Roethlisberger’s thrown seven touchdowns (tied for 19th) and eight picks (tied for second worst) and ranks just behind Blake Bortles in passer rating (78.2). Bell’s picked up steam after struggling in the early going, but Bryant’s caught just 17 passes for 231 yards and is already the subject of trade rumors. Passing game struggles helped lead to Brown’s Gatorade-bucket blowup on the sideline in Week 4, his subsequent reprimand from Big Ben, and, eventually, we even got the requisite is Roethlisberger going to retire? drama.

Taken together, it’d be easy to think that Brown’s having an off year, too — even with the playmaker’s tipped-ball touchdown in the fourth quarter of Pittsburgh’s win over Kansas City last week. But dig into the Steelers playmaker’s numbers, and it’s clear that he’s not only not regressing, but he might be penning his masterpiece. Brown’s on pace for a career high in yards, and he’s got a shot at a few records, too.

The 5-foot-10, 181-pound dynamo is lapping the field in his eighth season when it comes to pass-catching production: He leads the league in catches (48 — six more than Larry Fitzgerald) and has racked up nearly 200 more receiving yards (700) than the next closest competitor (A.J. Green, who has 504 yards in five games). As for the pace he’s on?

Brown’s on course to challenge Julio Jones’s 2015 mark of 1,871 receiving yards (second in NFL history), and with a few huge games sprinkled in, he could even flirt with Calvin Johnson’s record of 1,964 yards, set in 2012. Through six games, Brown accounts for 46 percent of his team’s receiving yards, a production share that, if it holds, would rank second all time since the merger. While he’s caught just two touchdowns this year, it wouldn’t be surprising if those started coming in bunches too.

Brown just keeps building on what’s been an incredible six-year run dating back to his breakout in 2011. Going back to the start of that year, the former sixth-round pick out of Central Michigan has racked up nearly 1,000 more receiving yards than the next closest pass catcher, Jones (8,910 to 7,977), his 664 catches are a mind-boggling 110 ahead of Fitzgerald (554) on the total receptions list, and just five non-quarterbacks (Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, Rob Gronkowski, and LeSean McCoy) have scored more total touchdowns than Brown’s 56 combined receiving, rushing, and kick/punt return scores. His 11-catch, 182-yard performance against the Browns in Week 1 marked the fourth time in his career he’s eclipsed 10 catches and 175 yards in a game, one shy of the record held by both Isaac Bruce and Jerry Rice. Incredibly, as Chase Stuart points out, Brown has 7,755 yards on 578 receptions dating back to December 16, 2012 — an incredible 77-game stretch in which he’s averaged 100 receiving yards per game.

After watching David Johnson, J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham Jr., and Aaron Rodgers all suffer major injuries over the past month and a half, it feels more important than ever to fully appreciate the league’s rare talents. With that in mind, I put together a list of 10 plays from this year that illustrate the traits that make Brown such a special player, and so fun to watch.

He Has Incredible Concentration and Reflexes

A lot of people (many of them fans in Kansas City) will say that Brown got lucky on his game-sealing catch-and-run touchdown in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win over the Chiefs. And they’re not wrong. He did get lucky — if cornerback Phillip Gaines had intercepted Roethlisberger’s pass instead of letting it careen off his face mask, I might be writing about the 6–0 Chiefs right now. But what Brown did after the ball bounced off Gaines’s helmet was seriously impressive too: with cat-like reflexes, the Steelers pass catcher reached out with one hand, corralled the ball, and secured it. He then avoided a tackle and accelerated downfield to run away from the Kansas City defense. That’s not pure luck; that’s talent.

It’s not the first time he made a big play on a deflected pass this year, either. In Week 1 against the Browns, he displayed that extraordinary concentration and reaction time to adjust to a tipped pass, secure it, then run upfield. He makes it look so easy that you’d think it is — but that’s a bang-bang play.

Brown is probably best known for his route-running chops. There aren’t many players that combine the foot-quickness, acceleration, and savvy set-up moves that he brings to the table on every route. But what makes him unique is that he doesn’t just get off the line of scrimmage well or pull away from defenders downfield — he has the skill set to win at every stage of the route.

He Wins Early in His Route

On this play from Week 1, Brown uses an outside jab step to get Browns defensive back Jamar Taylor’s balance going outside. He runs a slant instead, and Taylor’s almost immediately out of position; Brown easily sheds a hold and obvious pass interference to catch the ball with his downfield hand, capturing the bullet pass from Roethlisberger against his chest after juggling it. Again, he makes it look easy in real time, but that’s an incredible grab.

This play illustrates something else that Brown’s pretty underrated at: winning at the catch point. You think about Bryant, Gronkowski, or Brandon Marshall for the prototype “jump-ball catchers” in the league, but Brown’s right there with them on bringing down passes in traffic.

He Wins in the Middle of His Route

Brown’s a master manipulator in the middle of his route. Whether he’s lulling a defensive back to sleep with lackadaisical body language before breaking downfield, or using a head fake to get that corner to bite on the wrong route (or both), he’s always open. Against the Chiefs, Brown ran a lazy in-breaking slant. As he slowed up, he appeared to be “settling” near the first-down marker to give Roethlisberger a target downfield. Defensive back Terrance Mitchell bit hard on that fake, and Brown exploded downfield, catching a pass over his shoulder for a big gain.

Against the Jaguars, Brown used his shoulders and head to sell an in-breaking route before changing gears, cutting on a dime, and getting to the outside. Cornerback A.J. Bouye positions himself to cut off the drag route, and Brown’s too quick to the outside for Bouye (or the help over the top) to keep up.

He Wins Late in His Route

Brown knows the subtle art of winning late in a route, right when the ball’s arriving, too. Lined up across from Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey in Week 5, Brown ran a go route up the sideline. With Ramsey right in his hip pocket, Brown slowed up first, then shrewdly bounced off of Ramsey at the last second to gain separation. Ramsey wasn’t happy about it, but because Brown didn’t actually extend his arm and push off, he got away without a penalty.

He Has an Incredible Catch Radius

Brown’s a smaller receiver, and his ability to go up high and catch a pass is underrated. Against the Jaguars, he leaped up and grabbed this off-target pass from Roethlisberger, fully extending with both hands to bring it down.

He Picks Up Yards After the Catch

Brown’s one of the most elusive runners after the catch in the league. He combines Golden Tate’s gyroscopic talent for balance through contact …

… with Beckham Jr.–esque speed in the open field.

He Has a Nose for the End Zone

Of course, you can’t talk about Brown’s game without mentioning his signature nose for the end zone. His most famous goal-line effort — the play that embodies “there’s nothing you can do to keep me out of the end zone” — is now known as The Immaculate Extension. Brown did something similar (albeit, less spectacular) in Week 3 against the Bears. Taking advantage of off-coverage by cornerback Prince Amukamara, Roethlisberger swung the pass out to his receiver quickly — and Brown did the rest, juking to the outside before bursting inside, diving with an outstretched hand (another great extension) to break the plane and score.

These plays just scratch the surface of what Brown does week in and week out, but it says a lot that it was easy to find so many examples, and such a wide range, of his virtuosic skill set in a six-game sample size — I doubt you could do the same for another receiver in the league so far this year.

The Steelers are bound to hit their stride on offense as we get further along this season — there’s just too much talent in that skill position group and on the offensive line — and Brown’s target share could drop as Bryant, Bell, and rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster get more involved. That could slow Brown’s career-best pace and keep him from shattering multiple receiving records. But he doesn’t have to break records to cement himself as the best receiver in football. The proof’s all there; all you have to do is watch him run routes, fight for the ball, and make plays after the catch.