We spent more than a little time last week trying to talk Ben Roethlisberger owners off the ledge. The Steelers, of course, were facing a matchup with the mighty Broncos defense, which will finish this season as the league’s undisputed best unit against the pass. We here at SI.com kept cool heads, understanding that Roethlisberger commands the most potent passing attack in 2015, and that potent passing attacks in today’s NFL are matchup-proof.
Still, we seemed to be alone in beating that drum. Roethlisberger was our No. 5 quarterback for Week 15, but his consensus ranking at the position was 10th. Then Roethlisberger went out and showed why you don’t fade offensive groups, and he did so by hooking up repeatedly with the best receiver in the league. That’s where we begin this week’s edition of Fact or Fiction.
Fact: Great passing attacks are immune to defensive matchups
With all due respect to Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown is the most dangerous, most consistent receiver in the game today. Roethlisberger has played in 10 games this season. In those games, Brown has 98 receptions for 1,351 yards and nine touchdowns, which translates to an average of 18.91 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. That’s comfortably better than any signature receiver season we’ve seen in this golden age for the forward pass.
Remember Randy Moss’s 23-touchdown season in 2007? He averaged exactly 18 points per game that year. How about Calvin Johnson’s 1,964-yard campaign in 2012? He put up 13.8 points in an average game. Josh Gordon racked up 16.2 points per game during his 2013 season, while Beckham put up 17 points per contest in his breakout rookie year.
To find a receiver having a better fantasy year on a per-game basis than Brown is in 2015 (not including the ill-fated Michael Vick and Landry Jones eras), you have to go all the way back to Jerry Rice’s 1987 season. The Hall of Famer had 1,087 yards and 22 touchdowns in just 12 games 28 years ago, adding 51 yards and one score on the ground. Rice scored 20.91 points per game that season, in what still stands as one of the best individual seasons of any player at any position in league history. You could argue that Brown is surpassing it this year.
Roethlisberger and Brown prove why offensive talent should significantly outweigh a tough defensive matchup for fantasy owners, especially in the vertical-friendly NFL. Brown got 18 targets on Sunday, hauling in 16 for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Fifteen of those targets came against Chris Harris in coverage, and Brown caught 14 of those for 164 yards and both his scores. Heading into the game, Pro Football Focus graded Harris as the league’s No. 3 corner this season, driven largely by his second-overall rating in coverage. By any measure, this was just as tough a matchup for Brown as it was for Harris. After dealing with Brown, Harris is now 17th overall among corners and 16th in coverage.
Let’s take a look at a few instances in which Brown’s talent overwhelmed what was supposed to be a bad matchup. Harris will have some help on these plays, but for all intents and purposes he’s in man coverage on Brown, and he loses every time. The first play is nothing more than a simple combination route on which Brown has the option when he gets to the top of his break to come back to the ball, cross the middle, run an out route or keep on pushing down the field. Brown turns it into a hitch, creates two full yards of separation and then burns Harris after the catch.
Brown makes that look as easy as can be, but he just turned a hitch into 12 yards against one of the best cover corners in the league. It’s really not that easy.
The next play is the only one on which Harris really is in perfect position. It’s second-and-long, and he’s determined not to let Brown beat him deep. He forces Brown to cut his route short and come back to Roethlisberger. Even though Brown makes the catch, it’s a completion the Broncos can live with. Still, the fact that Brown did indeed catch this pass is a microcosm of how regularly good offense will beat good defense in the NFL.
Harris is right there in coverage, yet Brown, who is all of 5'10" and 181 pounds, holds him off with one hand, tips the pass to himself like he’s going for a rebound and then secures it off the deflection.
These next two plays, however, show what makes Brown truly special. Both came in the second half when the Steelers outscored the Broncos 21–0 en route to a comeback 34–27 win. Brown made play after play in the second half, totaling nine receptions for 112 yards and both of his touchdowns after halftime. His first score is the next play we’ll examine.
The Steelers have a first-and-goal from the Denver nine-yard line after Brown drew a pass interference call to get the offense into the red zone. Brown is at the top of the field with Harris in clear man coverage. The single high safety, David Bruton, can’t possibly get all the way over to the sideline to menace a pass to Brown, and Roethlisberger knows it. That’s why it’s little surprise that, after holding the safety in the middle of the field for a split second, Roethlisberger turns and fires a perfect pass to Brown.
To be fair, this one is just as much about Roethlisberger’s talent as it is Brown’s. He does enough to keep Bruton from making an immediate break and then drops an absolutely perfect pass over Harris where only Brown can catch it. This really isn’t bad coverage at all from Harris. Brown’s skill comes in getting the half step on him he needs to make sure this is a touchdown and not an incomplete pass. He really doesn’t get it until he draws even with Harris at about the three-yard line. At that point, Brown has already won, especially when you consider the precision from Roethlisberger.
Let’s round out this study of “Antonio Brown is better than everyone” with a look at his best catch of the game. He is, again, at the top of your screen, with Harris in man coverage. The Broncos are determined not to let Brown beat them deep. That’s fine with the Steelers, given that Brown is one of the best run-after-catch receivers in the league. This is nothing more than a mid-depth out on second-and-15, designed to get the Steelers some breathing room and put them in third-and-manageable. Roethlisberger gets a bit of pressure in his face and leaves the pass a touch short. Brown cleans that up and then some.
That Brown was able to catch this pass at all was remarkable. That he was able to turn it into a first down was otherworldly. The following is a screenshot of the moment he caught the pass. How is it possible that he went from this position—bent over at the waist, just barely in bounds, and lacking any momentum—to a first down another 10 yards down the field?
I feel safe saying only one receiver in the NFL makes that play. Chris Harris remains a fine corner, and he’s going to give plenty of receivers fits. No one, however, gives Brown fits. Offensive talent typically wins out in today’s NFL. Always keep that in mind when considering reaching down a tier or two because of matchup.
Fiction: The eventual championship-winning running backs lived at the top of draft boards in 2015
We’ve yet to finalize our Week 16 positional rankings, but here’s a sampling of the running backs who will be in the top 10: David Johnson, Todd Gurley, Charcandrick West, Doug Martin and DeAngelo Williams. Those five will all likely be in the top seven or so, with Johnson, West Gurley and Martin all potentially top-five plays (along with, perhaps, Adrian Peterson). Your stars may have carried you to the championship game, but they weren’t in the backfield.
The list of the top 20 running backs in standard-scoring leagues looks like one of those automatically generated leaderboards you never would have believed while playing a season of Madden. Devonta Freeman (first), Martin (third), Gurley (fourth), Chris Ivory (sixth), Williams (seventh), Johnson (ninth), Danny Woodhead (11th), Darren McFadden (17th), James Starks (18th), Giovani Bernard (19th) and Thomas Rawls (20th) were outside the top 20 running backs by average draft position. Freeman, Gurley, Martin and Ivory were all off the board between pick 60 and 110 in an average draft, while players like Williams, Johnson and McFadden were essentially free. Rawls, meanwhile, was the waiver wire darling of the 2015 season, leading all running backs in points per game, isolating for games he started.
On the opposite end, nearly every back in the top 12 could be considered a disappointment. Eddie Lacy, DeMarco Murray and C.J. Anderson were outright busts, with Jeremy Hill saving face, barely, thanks to his touchdown upside. Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch and LeSean McCoy all played well this year but missed significant time due to injury. Jamaal Charles and Le’Veon Bell were having fine seasons before suffering catastrophic knee injuries. Lamar Miller is shockingly the No. 5 running back in standard formats, but he has been wildly inconsistent, thanks to Miami’s bizarre play-calling tendencies. Only Adrian Peterson has delivered on his draft-day price, and even he was a slight value bust, given that you likely had to use a top-three pick on him.
We’ll save some of the lessons learned with respect to running backs for our season wrap-up files over the next few weeks. In this space, we’ll simply drive home the point that the most dangerous running backs in championship week are David Johnson, Todd Gurley, Charcandrick West, Doug Martin, DeAngelo Williams and that Peterson guy. This is something you need to remember when you gather around a draft table next summer.