Pittsburgh Steelers WR Antonio Brown has been the most productive wide receiver in the league over the past few years, with 5,517 receiving yards since the start of the 2013 season or 102.2 yards per game (YPG). Brown is one of four players to average 90+ YPG over that time, along with Falcons WR Julio Jones (111.9 YPG), Browns WR Josh Gordon (102.6 YPG), and Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. (101.1 YPG).
The New England Patriots know that they’ll have their hands full when they try and cover Brown, with head coach Bill Belichick raving about Brown’s abilities.
“He’s got a tremendous skill set, very quick,” Belichick said. “He almost always can create separation in his route. He’s a very good technique route-runner so he does a great job of setting up routes. He does a really good job of getting on top of the DB’s [defensive backs], almost stepping on the toes before he goes into his route so they can’t get any kind of – they can’t really anticipate it.
“He does a great job of stacking the defenders where he gets a step on the defender then he kind of cuts him off so that the defenders like a full man behind him so he can use his body to protect the ball on the deep balls. He’s hard to jam on the line because of his great quickness and then as I said, when he gets that half a step on the defender, not that he necessarily outruns everybody on the field, but once he moves in front of them and stacks them then he is on top of them.
“The skills with the ball in his hand as a runner are exceptional. You see that on the punt returns. You see it on a lot of those under routes, catch-and-run plays, so you don’t want to back off of him and let him catch it and break a tackle or if you get up on him he runs behind you. That’s a problem and he’s a good intermediate route runner, too; in-cuts, comebacks, curls, things like that.
“He has great quickness coming out of cuts so he’s very, very hard to cover. And he’s seen a lot of double-coverage, too. I don’t think that really bothers him either. He knows how to beat that. When you double him I mean at some point he attacks one guy so it really becomes single coverage. He takes the other guy out of it and then he beats that guy. So he’s tough. He’s really tough.”
Brown gets the better of most corners that he faces and Patriots CB Malcolm Butler was no exception last season. Butler bit on multiple double-moves by Brown as the receiver got behind his defender and in the open field. The Patriots are going to try and limit Brown with double teams, but even the secondary knows that will only have limited success.
“I think when you double team a guy it’s easy to stay with him through the top of the route,” Patriots FS Devin McCourty said. “But no matter what at the top of the route, you could be trailing him, you could be over the top, inside, outside, he [Brown] does a good job of turning it into a one-on-one when he gets to the top of the route. That’s tough.
“It’s tough to stay with him. I think one thing is you watch him, for a guy that’s not that big, he catches everything. They throw the ball around and he goes out there and catches it with his hands and brings it in. I think his ability at the top of the route, with his quickness, his hands, he’ll go out there and try to catch every ball thrown around him.”
McCourty also revealed a little bit about the Patriots experience and approach against elite receivers like Brown when asked to rank Brown against his peers.
“You pick any Sunday, you can pick any of these guys,” McCourty deflected. “He’s definitely one of them. It’s hard to say who’s the best. I mean Julio Jones had 300 yards one game receiving. Week in, week out, last week A.J. Green, this week Antonio Brown. It seems like every week we’re going against one of these guys that is just not normal.”
The Patriots faced future Hall of Fame Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald in week 1. They matched up against Pro Bowl Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry in week 2 (8th in the NFL in receiving yards). They faced All Pro Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins in week 3. They limited ascending Browns WR Terrelle Pryor in week 5. They covered All Pro Bengals WR A.J. Green in week 6.
The New England secondary has had to cover elite wide receivers in almost every single match-up this year (ironically, the Patriots lone loss came this year against the Bills, which was without their star WR Sammy Watkins on the injured reserve).
All of these receivers have their strengths. Fitzgerald has the best hands in recent NFL history. Landry is a top three (Fitzgerald and Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin are the others, in my opinion) slot receiver. Hopkins is incredible at the point of attack. Pryor is possibly the most versatile receiver in the league. Green has impossible quickness for his size.
Brown is arguably a better route runner and better after the catch than any of the other receivers, but he represents just another “not normal” player in the never-ending gauntlet that the New England secondary has faced this season.