Antonio Brown is not big. He’s not blazing fast. At this point in his career, he’s pretty strong for his size, admittedly. But when he was drafted close to a decade ago, nobody was painting him as a red-zone nightmare.
While a lot of his touchdowns do end up coming from deeper, he has become one of the premiere scorers in the league over the past six seasons, and plenty of them have come inside the red zone as well. He has shown how players can succeed in different ways than just being a big target with ups who can box a defender out on a fade.
Pro Football Focus sees Pittsburgh Steelers rookie wide receiver Diontae Johnson cut from a similar cloth to Brown, and that includes his ability to produce within the final 20-yard stretch of the football field, which is one of the topics that they discussed in a recent interview with Sam Monson and Austin Gayle.
“People think of red-zone threats as being these big, massive wide receiver targets—tight ends. Guys that can just go up and physically win at the catch point”, Monson said. “But in the red zone, separation is important as well. If you’re able to separate, if you’re able to shift defensive backs and just make them lose where you are, you’re gonna get open”.
That came after a discussion about Johnson’s elite ability, at the college level, to create separation, both before and after the catch, winning at the line of scrimmage. Monson talked about a two-play sequence against Miami in which he caught a top-tapping touchdown before pulling a double move on the cornerback for a wide-open two-point conversion.
“That’s being a red-zone target without being 6’3”, 220 pounds and just able to go up and dominate guys on an end-zone fade”, he said. “In the red zone, those targets tend to be smaller, [so] that separation is if anything more important. There are different ways of being a red-zone target”.
He had a high volume of first downs and touchdowns among his receptions in the red zone during his college career, but his best season, both within that 20-yard space and overall, was in 2017.
“He did it with Logan Woodside, AAF standout, when he had that quarterback play”, Gayle noted. His numbers in 2018 were not as good as the year before, but the quarterback play was also substantially worse.
The Steelers are going to need somebody to work in the red zone. Brown scored 15 touchdowns last season, and while that was a career-high (the most receiving touchdowns in a season in franchise history), he has been averaging double-digit scores for years now. The only other receiver since Mike Wallace to put up at least 10 touchdown receptions was that quirky final year of Jerricho Cotchery.