In Part 1 we took a close look at Antonio Brown’s advanced route running. Part 2 will examine how the Raiders new elite receiver uses his hands to win on the perimeter. Hand fighting is a skill all perimeter players in the NFL need to perfect. Going back to the days of Lester Hayes and bump and run coverage, offensive and defensive players alike need to establish physicality and body positioning to win with consistency on the outside.
With NFL rules changing over the years to benefit the offense, hand fighting has become more nuanced than the old days where defenders could literally smack a receiver upside the helmet after the snap. Now perimeter players need to be more discreet and use their hands within the rules of the game in order to avoid drawing penalties.
This is a fine line that Antonio Brown walks with great skill. Perhaps not usually named among the great hand fighters at the position along the lines of DeAndre Hopkins or Alshon Jeffery, Brown is as good as these more physical receivers using his hands to gain separation and he gets away with it more often than them too.
Brown is running a fade route here in week 16 of 2018 against the Saints. The defender is in back shoulder position but hasn’t yet turned his head around. Brown knows if the quarterback sees the back of the defenders helmet the back shoulder fade is coming. The savvy veteran receiver uses what is called a “pass through” technique to get the defender out of the throwing window.
First Brown places his hands on the hip of the defender and pushes him by. In the same motion he breaks down to adjust to the back shoulder throw. He gains separation where none previously existed. You see the defender stumble as a result of Brown’s hand usage but because his hands were low and he never extends his arm the refs don’t call it pass interference.
The new Raider receiver uses two different hand fighting techniques in this clip to beat Donte Jackson during a big win against Carolina in 2018. First Brown uses an “arm over” technique, similar to the “swim move” where the receiver will swat away the defenders attempt to jam him at the line of scrimmage.
Once Brown gets even with Jackson, he sticks his arm out and leans on him, making the defender believe the “pass through” back shoulder is coming...but it doesn’t. By faking the technique used in the previous clip, Brown makes the defender lose position against the deep ball and has his hips turned the wrong way to make a play on the deep shot. Jackson is known for running a blazing fast 4.25 40 yard dash at the 2018 scouting combine, but Brown nullifies his speed by using his hands to beat the cornerback.
Brown again shows off his “arm over” to beat press against the Falcons in 2018. Despite being 5’10 and 190 pounds, Brown is stronger than he looks and throws Robert Alford off balance with his release.
Another thing of note is how AB catches this pass. Knowing the defender is in trail position and getting ready to disrupt the catch point, Brown never puts his hands up to catch the pass, instead opting to let it fall in his lap with his hands down low. This technique, while not technically hand fighting is one reason why Brown is able to win so many contested catch situations. The defender doesn’t realize the ball is coming until it’s too late. Had Brown high pointed the ball or held his hands up, the defender could have raked the catch point and prevented a catch.
Brown uses this technique of keeping hands low in contested catch situations even when a corner is draped all over him. Conventional wisdom says catch the ball with your hands and not your body. However Brown has so many big plays catching the ball like this you can throw traditional thinking out the window.
In the AFC Divisional round of the 2017 playoffs, Brown is matched up against AJ Bouye and the Jacksonville defense. Bouye is in perfect coverage but still gives up a TD catch to Brown. Notice the receivers left arm is actually hooking Bouye’s right arm preventing the defender from making a play on the ball. Because the cornerback is positioned between the receiver and the referee, Brown gets away with this. Knowing the rules and where the referees are located is how Brown gets away with plays like this.
Earlier in 2017 Brown made this play against Logan Ryan for a touchdown. Brown takes an outside release on this slot fade into the end-zone against man coverage. Brown first uses his left hand to create separation before turning his body around and pushing off with his right hand.
The push off with the right hand is low towards Ryan’s hip instead of high on the defenders shoulder. Referees are looking for full extension of the elbow in the defenders upper body before they call offensive pass interference. Brown knows the grey area that exists in full speed and never full extends his arm while pushing off and rarely gets called on these.
Antonio Brown is a savvy hand fighter who exploits the rules in his favor every game. Between his advanced route running and his hand fighting, defenders have a pick your poison approach to dealing with the All-Pro receiver in coverage.
Because he is able to gain positioning on defenders by using subtle moves with his hands, he has proved his ability to win contested catches despite not being the biggest or strongest receiver. Traits like this are why the Steelers have been able to force him the ball and allowed him to have over 10 targets per game for the past 6 seasons. Even when he is covered he can come down with the catch.