Antonio Brown is renowned for his route running and ability to gain separation against bigger and faster defensive backs. A true technician, Brown puts a full array of skill on display every time he steps out on the field putting very good defenders in the spin cycle with regularity.
Route running in the NFL takes a considerable degree of dedication and nuance. NFL defenders are able to watch every snap and every target for a specific player for their entire career. If a receiver doesn’t vary his releases and route stems he will get beat by smart defensive backs. Brown is a consummate professional in this regard and will run the same route in multiple ways each game, never allowing the opposition to get a handle on his style.
The small details of the game aren’t too big for the All-Pro receiver. Releasing against press, attacking leverage, and getting defenders stacked are techniques taught as early as the high school level and Brown is able to execute them against professional cornerbacks with ease. Here’s a look at his game.
Brown runs an NFL curl pattern in this clip against Marshon Lattimore in week 16 of 2018. The NFL curl asks a receiver to threaten the post route before sitting down and coming back for the ball. In this case Brown is able to sell the post route enough for Lattimore to take off and the cornerback is unable to recover in time to impact the catch.
The Saints are in cover 4 which is essentially a double coverage look against Brown who is the single receiver to the right of the formation. Lattimore’s job in cover 4 is to take away a deep route which is why we see the defender so quick to bail when Brown sells the post. Vonn Bell the safety who comes into the frame late is responsible for any in-breaking crossing patterns which is why the pass is placed where it is. Brown sits in the perfect spot between multiple defenders and adjusts to make the catch in traffic.
“Attacking leverage” and “stacking” defenders
Route running isn’t all about double moves and making defenders guess wrong. Sometimes its about fundamentals. The play above is one such example of Brown executing text book technique in order to win downfield against Chargers Casey Hayward in Week 13 of 2018.
The Chargers are in Cover 3 and Casey Hayward plays off coverage in a “half-turn” so he won’t need to turn and run against a deep pass, his hips are already positioned to sprint back against the fade. Brown sees this technique early in the rep and stems his route outside forcing Hayward to adjust his feet to stay on Brown’s outside shoulder. This is called attacking leverage. Once Brown gets even with Hayward he uses another fundamental technique of receiver play called “stacking.” On deep routes, after a receiver attacks the defenders leverage, instead of running side by side with the DB, they need to position their body on top of the defender making it easier for the QB to throw away from coverage. Brown gets this done here and makes the catch near the goal line.
The Patriots are famous for doubling the opponents best receiver and making teams beat them with other options. This tactic didn’t stop Antonio Brown from scoring in a week 15 win against the eventual Super Bowl Champions.
Brown in the inside most receiver on the left of the formation. The Patriots are using two defenders to bracket Brown, the shallow defender should take away the inside and underneath routes while the safety above should play the outside and deep routes.
Brown releases outside, again attacking leverage and forcing the defender to mirror his release outside before breaking upfield for an easy throw and catch. Brown runs this route with great feel for how defenses are playing him and it’s not a route you’ll find in any playbook. Brown manipulates defenders in space before before breaking towards the open area of the field.
Another example of manipulating defenders came against Atlanta in week 5. Brown is matched up against rookie corner Isaiah Oliver in man coverage. Brown takes an outside release and fakes as if he is attempting to get the rookie stacked before breaking to the sideline.
They key in this route are Brown’s eyes. He sells the deep ball by getting his head turned around and makes the corner think one thing before cutting at the last second. Small details like this are what makes Brown a perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver and too difficult a task for inexperienced corners to cover.
Many times in the NFL receivers need to convert their route in the middle of a play. Sometimes this is in response to identifying a blitz, other times they are installed option routes in the play book.
Brown is running an option route against Carolina in 2018. Brown’s responsibility is to run the seam against single high coverage or the post against two deep safeties. Brown releases inside and begins running the seam route before eyeing the safety who attempts to disguise the coverage. As soon as he sees the middle of the field open up, Brown converts the seam into a post and gains great separation for an easy throw by the quarterback.
Brown brings elite route running ability to the Raiders offense. He is very smart player who combines attention to detail with outstanding technique, giving defenses a serious problem defending him.
The key to Brown’s success with the Raiders will be how quickly he and Carr can get on the same page. Route running like this requires a great deal of chemistry between quarterback and receiver. Knowing how and when Brown will break off his routes will take time for Carr to completely understand at game speed. If the two can establish a great rapport this offseason Raiders fans will see plays like this every Sunday in 2019.