Heath Miller

Antonio Brown, Receiver of Renown

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The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense will present several threats to the Indianapolis Colts’ offense on Sunday night. Perhaps the most dangerous is Antonio Brown, one of the league’s most prolific receivers and, by at least one measure, the most valuable. What does Brown do so well, and what makes him so good?

Volume, But Not Just Volume

Brown currently ranks second in the NFL in both receptions and receiving yards, behind only Julio Jones. It should come as no surprise he ranks highly in both categories. After all, he ranks third in the league in targets, behind Jones and Houston’s one-man band, DeAndre Hopkins.

But targets are no guarantee of production. Just ask Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, who was having a down season even before his 13-target, one-catch performance against the Patriots last Sunday night. What matters more is efficiency, and Brown has been very efficient. Just like he did last season, he currently sits atop the Football Outsiders’ leaderboard as the most valuable receiver in the league. What makes Brown so valuable?

Not in the Red Zone, But Getting There

Many of the most valuable receivers in the league are like Larry Fitzgerald, red zone monsters. That is not Brown’s forte, as his total of just five touchdowns indicates. He is not even the Steelers’ most-targeted player in the red zone. That distinction belongs instead to tight end Heath Miller.

Brown’s most productive areas are when the Steelers are trying to get to scoring territory in the first place. He is the second-most-valuable receiver in the league when the Steelers are between their own 20 and their own 40, and the seventh-most-valuable receiver in the league when the Steelers are between their own 40 and their opponents’ 40, the back and middle areas of the field where teams start most of their possessions and where many possessions go to die. Red zone receiving threats are incredibly valuable, but the best players are full-field players, and Brown is one of those.

A Threat Everywhere Past the Line of Scrimmage

Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley is a devotee of the wide receiver screen, and Brown is his preferred screen player. He has 20 targets at or behind the line of scrimmage this year, most on the team. Haley may wish to rethink part of his strategy, as this is pretty much the only area on the field Brown has not been highly productive this year.

Brown’s most productive area of the field has been the very deep pass, those thrown more than 25 yards downfield. Even with the time he has missed, Ben Roethlisberger is tied with Carson Palmer for the most very deep attempts in the league. He has been excellent on those, ranking second to Derek Carr in total value by Football Outsiders’ metrics.

Brown is a big reason for Roethlisberger’s success on those very deep passes. Football Outsiders’ metrics rate him as the most valuable receiver in the league on such throws, ahead of Carr’s favorite target, Amari Cooper.

Brown is far from just a deep-ball specialist, as he displays special skills on short passes. There are 54 wide receivers who have been targeted at least 25 times within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He ranks first among that group with an average of 6.9 yards after the catch. That is not just one fluke play either, as he ranks third on passes 1-5 yards downfield and first on passes 6-10 yards downfield.

Even on shorter passes, Brown does not need to get yards after the catch to be highly productive. He averages just 0.4 yards after the catch on passes 11-15 yards downfield but still ranks as one of the most valuable players in the league on those passes too. The reason: he catches almost everything. He has a catch rate of 81 percent, best among the 25 players with at least 15 such targets.

Brown is also not just a one-side-of-the-field specialist, like Odell Beckham was. He has been targeted in roughly equal numbers on both the left and right sides of the field, and has been just about as efficient on either side of the field. The one tendency has been his high yards-after-catch plays on short passes tend to come in the middle of the field.

A great deal of Brown’s value comes from not just where he is targeted, but when. He’s had the ball thrown in his direction on third or fourth down more often than any receiver in the league. By Football Outsiders’ numbers, he is the most valuable receiver in the league there. His 190 DYAR on third and fourth downs is 50 percent more than second-place A.J. Green‘s.

What It Means

Brown is not as physical pre-possession as Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones or Dez Bryant, but he might still be the league’s best receiver. He can beat you after the catch on short passes. He can sit down in intermediate routes, get open, and catch everything. He can beat you deep. He will beat you on third downs. He has even been just as good playing with Landry Jones as with Ben Roethlisberger. The only people to slow him down this season have been Michael Vick and Richard Sherman. Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky needs a good plan, or else Brown could match the 133 yards and two touchdowns he had in Pittsburgh’s 51-34 win last year.