Last season, Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown caught the second-most passes in a season in the history of the league with his 129 receptions, shattering the franchise’s previous record of 112. Over the course of the past two seasons, Brown has hauled in an astounding 239 receptions, an average of nearly 120 per season.
But that is not likely a pace that will be maintained, for multiple reasons.
For one thing, Brown is now decidedly on every defensive coordinator’s radar—you know, the one that keeps them up at night. Like in basketball when a defense will sell out to assure that a star player will not beat them, and is willing to settle for a shot attempt from somebody else, it’s expected that teams will put ever greater emphasis on covering Brown.
No doubt, he will get his fair share of targets and receptions. He has caught at least five passes for at least 50 receiving yards for every game of the past two seasons, and that alone translates to 80 receptions for 800 yards. He should have little trouble surpassing those numbers this season.
But it seems unlikely that he will get the overwhelming lion’s share of targets again, as he has in the past as the only known commodity among the wide receivers. Put quite simply, that’s just no longer the case.
Last season, Brown led all wide receivers (tied with Demaryius Thomas) with 178 targets. Ben Roethlisberger actually attempted 11 more passes than did Peyton Manning, so Thomas’s target rate would be ever so slightly higher. But I digress.
Roethlisberger attempted a career-high 608 passes last season, with 178 of those passes being targeted to Brown. That means that nearly 30 percent of Roethlisberger’s pass attempts were directed at his All-Pro wide receiver.
The rest of the wide receivers as a whole combined for 181 targets, or just barely more than Brown’s total number of targets—and he caught 14 more passes than the rest of the wide receivers as a group combined.
But Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are far more established now than they were entering last season, with Bryant of course sitting out the first six games and Wheaton seeing little action during his rookie season the year prior.
Both young players have reportedly been making significant strides in improving their craft, and are building a rapport with Roethlisberger while establishing a level of comfort and trust with their quarterback.
This should translate into more targets as the season progresses as defenses clamp down on Brown, with Roethlisberger believing in his other targets to take advantage of the added average slid the All-Pro’s direction in order to make a play.
This is not even mentioning the running back and tight end positions. Le’Veon Bell was targeted 100 times last season, and though he may not reach that number again due to his suspension, his per game target ratio should climb. In all, expect Brown to go out and get his numbers, certainly, but I would also anticipate a much more equitable distribution of the ball in 2015.