By just about any statistic that you would care to come up with, the Jacksonville Jaguars finished with the best pass defense in the NFL during the 2017 regular season. Their 169.9 passing yards allowed per game? The best in the league. Their six yards per pass attempt allowed? The best in the league. Their 68.5 quarterback rating? The best in the league. Their touchdown-to-interception ratio? The best in the league.
So then you might be surprised to learn that their defense was actually one of the most highly-exploited when it comes to allowing big plays. Their 40 plays of 20 yards or more allowed through the air was one of the best in the league. But they let a large percentage of those explosive plays get by them.
Over the course of the season, the Jaguars allowed 12 passing plays of 40 yards or more. Only five teams—and yes, that does include the Pittsburgh Steelers, by one—allowed more passing plays that went for at least that distance.
From a play-to-play basis, it is true that passing teams may not be able to find a great deal of success. But there is the opportunity to hit the occasional long ball. And it just so happens that the Steelers have been the best team in the league when it comes to netting those 40-plus-yard passing plays.
Pittsburgh recorded 16 passes that gained 40 or more yards during the course of the regular season, which was tied for the most in the NFL with the Detroit Lions it will surely not surprise you who the primary protagonists have been in that regard for the team.
Antonio Brown finished tied for second in the league with seven receptions that gained 40 yards or more, behind only Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs, and if I am not mistaken, he was actually tied for the lead entering the game in which he was injured.
But the Steelers’ rookie, JuJu Smith-Schuster, was right behind. He caught six passes during the season that gained at least 40 yards, and only three players in the league—Hill, Brown, and Brandin Cooks—had more during the year.
For somebody who had a low speed grade in Madden entering the league through the draft—pardon me if my nomenclature is off here, I haven’t played football games in years—the fact that he would be among the league leaders in such explosive passing plays has surely taken many off-guard, but the results are there.
We might as well point out that Brown also led the league in explosive plays, all told, with 27, and the closest to him was DeAndre Hopkins with 24. Smith-Schuster tied for 24th in the league with 12 explosive plays, and he did it on fewer receptions than the vast majority of those ahead of him on the list.