One of the biggest questions the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking at on the offensive side of the ball is who their third wide receiver is going to be, working alongside Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, the latter of whom was immediately put into work with the first-team unit after returning from suspension.
While the Steelers spent the majority of their offensive snaps with three wide receivers on the field, they don’t use as many three-receiver sets as become the norm—at least that proved to be the case last season, which could be an aberration due to injuries and the late-season focus on running the ball.
But with that in mind, I think it would be a worthwhile service to look at the Steelers’ wide receiver group from last season relative to how they performed, specifically, when lining up in the slot in passing situations, because, generally speaking, the third wide receiver is probably going to spend the vast majority of time in that role.
Over the course of the next several days, I am going to review the application for each candidate for the job based on their 2016 performance there where applicable—which will not be the case for rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster for obvious reasons, while at the same time serving the purpose of talking about each player relative to their ability to play in the slot.
Candidate 6: Antonio Brown
Is Antonio Brown a good enough player to legitimately be the Steelers’ starting slot receiver this season?
If you don’t know the answer to this question, please find something else to read for the next couple of minutes.
You should definitely know who Antonio Brown is if you’re reading this article, and the fact that he has been consistently an All-Pro talent for the past four seasons. Of course, it’s fair to point out that the vast majority of his work comes outside the numbers, but he still gets a good dose of snaps in the slot.
According to my charting from last season, I concluded that Brown saw roughly 12 percent of his snaps on plays on which passes were thrown and not negated by penalty. That was a total of 67 out of 543 such passes, and Brown was the only player other than Eli Rogers to have at least 50 slot snaps, though Darrius Heyward-Bey was close.
He was targeted 20 times—I should point out that that’s a very frequent target ratio per snap—catching 14 of those passes for 121 yards, a catch rate of roughly 70 percent, and 8.6 yards per reception, though he neither caught a touchdown nor had a pass picked off when targeted in the slot.
Brown shared the team lead in averaging 1.8 yards per slot snap route run, though he was less productive per reception than Rogers. This is because when Brown was used in the slot, his targets tended to be of the short or intermediate variety, with very few targets coming beyond 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. These were typically passes designed to be quick-hitters that dictated the maximum range of their likely outcome. Think screens and the like.
However, in a likely scenario, if the Steelers feel as though their best three wide receivers are Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Sammie Coates—or more generally speaking, somebody who is not Rogers—then we can absolutely make a case for Brown being the Steelers’ primary slot receiver, but that’s a topic that can be delved into deeper on its own.
That’s all the data we have on the rostered Steelers and their work in the slot last season, but tomorrow I will be posting an addendum in which I will attempt to address the departed Markus Wheaton as well as free agent addition Justin Hunter and draft pick JuJu Smith-Schuster.