If you want to know the secret behind the best quarterback-receiver battery in the National Football League, watch the Pittsburgh Steelers practice.
When the first-string defense is on the field, and the first-string offense is getting its conditioning in off to the side, chances are you’ll see quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Antonio Brown honing their connection through constant repetition.
“We’re playing catch while we run gassers,” Roethlisberger said. “Just little things like that.”
Like when the first-string offense jogs off the field, and Roethlisberger invariably flips a ball at Brown so he can practice his signature toe-tap just inside the sideline.
“I always throw one right on the edge,” Roethlisberger said. “I think it’s just an understanding. We communicate well.”
That’s something Chiefs defensive lineman Nick Williams can attest to. As a seventh-round pick of the Steelers in 2013, he got to watch Roethlisberger and Brown do their thing for a little over a year before his release.
Williams, 26, has been a Chief for a few years now, but he never forgot the connection those two shared.
“They just clicked, on and off the field, for real,” Williams said. “You want to be close with whoever you’re working with. That really translates over to the field.”
Boy has it. Roethlisberger, 34, has been Brown’s quarterback for the entirety of his seven-year career. During that time, Brown, 28, has caught 10 or more passes in 11 games — the most in Steelers history, ahead of Hines Ward’s seven — and is only two 100-yard receiving games shy of Ward’s career club record of 29.
It’s easy forget this now, but Brown — a four-time Pro Bowler whose 375 receptions is the most of any NFL receiver in a three-year span — was a sixth-round pick in 2010, someone who was productive in college but whose lack of size (5 feet 10, 181 pounds) and small-school pedigree (Central Michigan) worked against him.
But after a rookie season in which Brown learned the ropes and produced modest numbers (16 catches, 167 yards), he broke out in 2011 with 69 catches for 1,108 yards, and has steadily seen his receptions and targets climb, reaching high-water marks in both categories last year, when he caught 136 of 195 targets for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“He’s one of the elite, elite receivers in our league,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He’s a tremendous route runner, has great run after the catch ability, outstanding hands. I mean, he snatches balls out of the air. He’s just a really, really good football player. He’s got great acceleration in-and-out of cuts ... there may be guys that are faster and all that, but running cuts and snapping in-and-out of them, there are not too many better than him right now in our league.”
And the guy throwing Brown the ball — Roethlisberger — is pretty darn good, too.
“He’s a great competitor on the field — he has the unique ability to extend the play for it seems like months when you’re on defense,” Sutton said. “He stays back there and finds guys. He has great vision when he’s scrambling, when he has people hanging on him.”
Sutton noted that the Steelers are in “no-huddle” mode right now, which presents a great challenge to a defense. Pittsburgh runs a ton of three-wide sets, and Roethlisberger continues to feed Brown to a staggering degree.
Brown, who is coming off a 12-catch, 140-yard game in the Steelers’ 34-3 loss to the Eagles, is third in the league with 24 catches and 40 targets and fifth with 305 receiving yards.
Still, there are ways to defend Brown. Cincinnati limited him to four catches and 39 yards, largely by cheating a safety to his side, chipping him at times and bracketing him in certain situations.
The problem with all that, as Sutton noted, is that it opens up the field for the rest of the Steelers’ playmakers, a group that should be boosted by the return of star back Le’Veon Bell, who missed the first three games because of a suspension.
“You know, anytime you’re in any form of double coverage or anything where you split safeties, you got other issues,” Sutton said. “It’s like most things in football — you can’t do it every play or they’re going to try and take advantage of you. That’s the problem.”
One thing the Chiefs have going for them against Brown is the presence of second-year pro Marcus Peters, who continues to intercept passes at a prolific rate.
It’s easy to suggest that Peters, the NFL’s reigning defensive rookie of the year who already has a league-high four interceptions, should either travel with Brown or the Steelers’ weaker No. 2 receiver, which would conceivably allow the Chiefs to double-team Brown.
But that would go against the Chiefs’ preferred style under Sutton, as they have never allowed their corners to match up on individual receivers since his arrival in 2013.
“It’s really just style of play and what you’re doing,” Sutton explained. “Are you playing a lot of man defense or a lot of zone? That’s a philosophical decision as much as it is, ‘Hey do we trust this guy?’ There’s a lot of different ways people do things.”
Which leads to the obvious question — what does Peters have to do earn enough trust to be put in that situation?
“Maybe we don’t want Marcus in that situation,” Sutton said. “That might be the other answer. There’s not a ‘guaranteed’ way to play all the time. There’s elements that happen when you do that, structurally, that makes it easier for the offense to pick up on. You’ve got to take both ends into account. As long as he keeps playing like he is over on the left side, we’ll be pretty happy with him.”
But while it appears the Chiefs won’t be changing their philosophy in that area to slow Brown, that doesn’t mean they won’t be paying special attention to him.
“Man, you have to cater to him, you have to know where 84 is, period,” inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “You can’t leave him on an island a lot. He’s that good. It doesn’t matter who he’s on, he’s gonna beat you. They do a lot of things to get him the ball, even in the screen game.”
And while Roethlisberger insists Brown isn’t the No. 1 read on every passing play — “We switch it up,” he said — there’s no doubt that more often than not, Big Ben is going to be looking for No. 84.
“I tell him all the time,” Roethlisberger concluded, “that by the time we’re done playing together, (the goal is) for us to go to down as the greatest — or one of the greatest — combinations of wide receiver-quarterbacks in history.”