When you’re as good as Antonio Brown is, it’s never a surprise just how good you are. But it may be surprising to find out the various ways in which you excel. And one of the areas in which the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver has been very good is in the deep passing game, even though he has never really been regarded as a ‘vertical threat’.
A short wide receiver who did not have great speed numbers coming out of college, Brown has made a career, and a legacy, out of making his critics look foolish, and that includes defensive backs who don’t take his ability to beat them over the top seriously.
In fact, he is one of just four wide receivers in the NFL that has accumulated at least 2000 receiving yards on deep targets since the 2013 season, or in other words, over the course of the past five years. According to Pro Football Focus, at least, he has gained 2044 yards on deep targets, averaging about 409 yards per season, which is about 26 percent of his total receiving yardage.
Since 2013, DeSean Jackson leads all NFL WRs in deep receiving yards! pic.twitter.com/9f0791M0Tf
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) March 8, 2018
The only wide receivers who have produced more yards on deep targets over that same period of time are DeSean Jackson, T.Y. Hilton, and A.J. Green. Jackson leads the league in that span with 2255 yards on deep targets, while Hilton has 2213 and Green 2060.
Last season, even in a down year for Ben Roethlisberger on the long ball, Brown caught 14 targets that were thrown 20 or more yards in the air, going for 450 yards and two touchdowns. JuJu Smith-Schuster was second on the team with six receptions for 308 yards and two touchdowns. Brown also missed two and a half games.
The year prior, in 2016, he put up similar numbers, again with 14 receptions on deep targets for 407 yards. But he was deadly on the connection, as eight of those receptions resulted in touchdowns. That year, Sammie Coates was second with seven receptions for 321 yards and a touchdown.
Yet again, the All-Pro had 14 receptions on deep targets in 2015, this time for a whopping 515 yards, two of those resulting in touchdowns. Martavis Bryant was second on the team with five receptions on deep targets for 318 yards and three touchdowns.
A comparative ho-hum affair in 2014 saw Brown with just 12 receptions on deep targets for 359 yards, though a quarter of them—three—resulted in touchdowns. Bryant was again second on the deep in deep target receptions, this time with seven for 369 yards and four touchdowns.
Finally, going back to 2013, he had 10 receptions for 313 yards and four touchdowns on deep targets. In his final season with the club, Emmanuel Sanders came up second on the team, catching five deep targets for 212 yards and one touchdown.
Put all of those numbers together and you get 64 receptions for 2044 yards and 19 touchdowns over the course of the past five years on deep targets. For somebody who does not have the reputation of being able to take the top off the defense, that is fine production.
And to be fair, I’m sure that a good number of those targets do not come in the typical go route, with many of them the result of Brown working back to the ball and Roethlisberger finding him. But this quantity of production does not come by that alone. The vertical pass is very much a key part of his repertoire, which is something that is not recognized enough.