When the Bucs signed wide receiver Antonio Brown around midseason, there were two lenses to evaluate the move through: an ethical one and a football one. I think I’ve thoroughly and fairly covered his signing from an ethical perspective. I didn’t like it. But on the field, there was little question in my mind what he’d bring to the table: positional versatility, talented route-running ability, velcro-like hands and, most importantly, the ability to make plays with the ball in his hands.

Getting to the point where these traits were consistently on display has been a bit of an adventure. It’s hard for any player to step into a major role in the middle of a season, especially after missing almost all of last year and playing in an offense that has been changing all season, to a degree. Brown has handled the transition pretty well, but over the first several games of his Bucs tenure, a number of communication issues were evident between he and Tom Brady, especially on vertical passes. Some of those are still there (Brown broke outside instead of inside on a deep route) on Sunday, but Brady and Brown are clearly more on the same page in Week 17 than they were in Weeks 11 and 12, and Tampa Bay has a clearer plan for how the team would like to use Brown in the passing game.

Let’s focus on the Bucs’ usage of Brown first, as it adds an element to their offense that they really didn’t have before the veteran receiver’s signing. When Tampa Bay inked Brown to a cheap deal back in November, I said on the Pewter Report Podcast that the one thing the former Steeler really provided the Bucs that they didn’t have much of in their receiving corps was top-notch YAC (yards after catch) ability. Brown has always been a dangerous player with the ball in his hands, showing excellent instincts, burst and strength in the open field after the catch. Since the bye week, the Bucs have made significant offensive adjustments to get Brown the ball in situations that allow him to showcase those gifts.

The Bucs’ new “throw early” philosophy has resulted in much more impactful first down plays, and one of the reasons for that is high percentage passes that require accounting for less variables than a run play in order to be successful. Take this play for example.

On first down, Brady stands up and fires a quick bubble screen to Brown, putting the receiver in a one-on-one situation in the open field. Mike Evans gets in the way, Brown makes a man miss while bouncing outside, and the result is five yards and a very manageable second-and-5. The play call sets the offense up for more success on the next play than the percentages suggest a run play would, and Brown’s quickness and vision with the ball in his hands maximizes what can be gained on this play.

Later in the game, the Bucs pulled out the same bubble screen with Chris Godwin on the outside. Godwin picks up the triggering safety and Brown runs through the arm tackle of rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell, showing his burst and strength to pick up 14 yards on the play. Again, there are just two variables in the offense’s path to getting four yards or more (four yards = success rate on first-and-10) – the cornerback and the safety. If you call an inside run, you have far more variables to account for with the Falcons loading up the box here. It is terrific play design and play-calling to get into positive number counts in the passing game, and Brown is the perfect player to utilize in this role.

Before Brown’s arrival in Tampa Bay, Godwin was typically the player to target in these situations. The problem is that left Evans or Scotty Miller as blockers, and Miller isn’t ideal in that role. With Brown on the roster, Godwin can step into the key blocking role, and Brown can be the creator with the ball in his hands. Best of both worlds for each player.

Sometimes, being the blocker in space on these concepts is hard. Godwin gets blown up on this play, but it’s enough to give Brown the one-on-one he needs to pick up 12 yards on second-and-2. Nothing fancy here from Brown, but as soon as the off corner stops his feet to address the receiver, Brown mashes the gas to run by him. He’s always had excellent instincts in the open field, rarely cutting or stopping unnecessarily.

The quick screen game has been a huge asset to the offense over the past month, but that’s far from the only way Brown has contributed. I’ve often said that arguably the most important trait for a receiver is the ability to stop-and-start quickly, without wasted motion. I learned this watching Brown for years in Pittsburgh, as he consistently dusted defensive backs in coverage because they could not gear down and address the football out of the break as quickly as Brown could. He’s carried that ability over to Tampa Bay flawlessly, even at age 32.

Great vertical push from Brown here, with perfect technique. Head down, arms pumping, completely selling a nine route to the opposing cornerback in man coverage. At 18-20 yards, Brown throws on the brakes, the corner flies by and the receiver works back to the football for a 23-yard gain on the deep curl. Brown has made his living in the NFL off of perfect technique, but his ability to throttle down and gear back up in an instant are the athletic traits that has allowed that technique to blossom, rather than great pure speed, size or leaping ability.

As you can see in the play above and all throughout Brown’s tape in the NFL, he’s fully capable of playing every single receiver spot because he’s so good against press coverage. When Evans went down with an injury in the first quarter, Brown moved to the X-receiver spot for much of the game, playing the power forward role to run off jams at the line of scrimmage and then separate at the top of the route.

And that’s the second things that makes Brown valuable to this Bucs team – his ability to play any of the three receiver spots at a Pro Bowl level allows Godwin to stay as a big slot and Scotty Miller to stay as an ‘X,’ and allows Arians to work multiple personnel packages without changing a thing, even without Evans – his best receiver – in the lineup.

Watch how aggressive Brown is off the line of scrimmage! The press corner wants to set the tone on this rep, but he can’t even land a good punch because Brown is all in his space right off the snap. See how Brown dips his shoulder in his release so the corner can’t land a good punch? Then he works back square with the corner while still forcing him backward, before opening up the defender with the pivot release for an uncontested catch. Poor Isaiah Oliver. He’s left floundering in space, while Brown easily reels in a dart from Brady and heads up the sideline for the touchdown.

Then you have the YAC ability again. Brown’s able to keep his balance through contact and finish this play in the end zone, tight-rope walking the sideline for about six yards for the score. I’m not sure that’s a play the other receivers in Tampa Bay’s offense make, as it shows off so many of Brown’s best qualities on one rep.

As the Bucs have moved to a pass-heavy approach on first down, Brown’s YAC ability has allowed them to find high percentage pass plays that are more impactful than run plays and force defenses to change how they align or get gashed by quick screens. Combine that with Brown’s ability to play as the ‘X’, ‘Z’ or slot receiver, and you recognize the value Tampa Bay felt they were getting when they signed him to such a cheap deal back in October.

Bucs WR Antonio Brown
Bucs WR Antonio Brown – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Would the Bucs be 11-5 and rolling up points on offense if they hadn’t signed Brown? Maybe, but the past few weeks have shown us elements of what he can bring to this team that others can’t, and Sunday’s victory over Atlanta was a perfect example of that. In eight games with the Bucs, Brown has 45 catches for 483 yards and four touchdowns, with all four scores coming in the three most recent games. Against Atlanta on Sunday, Brown had his most productive game with Tampa Bay, catching 11 of 14 targets for 138 yards and two touchdowns.

If the Bucs are forced to play without Mike Evans on Saturday in Washington in the wild card playoff game it will be a significant loss, but the presence of Brown certainly softens the blow. As he showed on Sunday, Brown is still fully capable of handling the heavy workload he shouldered for years in Pittsburgh.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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ScottC543
16 days ago

We are just now beginning to see the receiver that AB was with Pittsburgh, and that guy would be a valuable addition to any team (if the off-field crap isn’t a factor).

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Last edited 16 days ago by ScottC543
surferdudes
16 days ago

Getting on the same page with Tom is happening, but I think you also hit on the most important thing Jon, this guy was out of football for a year. I mean he’s stayed in shape to his credit, but he had a lot of catching up to do to get in football shape. He couldn’t be getting his legs under him at a better time. If he’s just warming up, look out.

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Horse
16 days ago

If I’m the coach at this point in time, Evans would have to convince me he is ready to prove at practice at his knee is not a problem. I’m more inclined to not play Evans, unless I absolutely have to and save him for the next playoff game.
If our offensive line can stop WFT defensive line, then we should coast through this game. I would put a safety in the linebacker spot instead of Minter.

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drdneast
Reply to  Horse
16 days ago

As I told you before, I concur with your feelings about putting a safety in place of Minter. I will also say one of the coverages I thought Minter had blown was actually a coverage Lavonte David blew. It was a short pass to Brian Hill in the middle of the field and it was obviously David’s man.
Both of these LB’s better get their coverage responsibilities worked out because Alex Smith is known for his quick short passing game so the Bucs can expect to see plenty of Saints style passing attack.

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Spitfire
16 days ago

It almost comes off like we have been running a boring Run on first down offense all year only to lull everyone to sleep, just so we could turn on our real offense these last few weeks to practice for the post season Haha. The way they played the entire last week the way they’ve played in the second quarter the entire last half of the season was exactly what they needed to do. Come out firing and never let up. Brown was a big part of that. Those quick passes have been huge. We have got to have the… Read more »

eaustinyoung
16 days ago

Need those bullet passes to nullify the pass rush they’ll face.

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buddah
Reply to  eaustinyoung
15 days ago

Can we just stop with all the fear of Washington Defensive line? Brady has one of the fastest releases in the NFL. Our offensive line is above average. Washington had the 28th ranked schedule; we had the 11th. Washington lost to Detroit and the Giants twice and by 20 to the Rams. They lost to the Panthers; we beat the Panthers twice. Washington has the 32nd best offense. They may keep the game close, but this would be a major upset. Buccaneers 31-Football team 21.

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Dave
Reply to  buddah
15 days ago

Oh you didn’t know dude? We’re not playing Washington. We’re playing the 85 Bears. If the WFT hits 17 points it’s an automatic win. Brady and the OLine might as well not even show up. Funny how I’ve heard all season that Brady and the offense have feasted on bad teams. Weird, not a word mentioned about the HOF WFT DLine feasting on bad offenses/OLines. The WFT had 9 games against bad offenses/OLines( Cowboys, Giants, and Eagles twice. Along with the Bengals, Panthers, and 49ers). In those 9 games, the WFT totaled 36 sacks(4 sacks per game). In their 7… Read more »

Last edited 15 days ago by Dave
RW
RW
Reply to  Dave
15 days ago

The difference is that Alex Smith is a competent QB. Haskins was not. When Smith plays the WFT has a chance to win. That and the fact that the Bucs O line crumbled against strong D lines ( Bears, Saints, Rams) has brought out the doubters.

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Eddie
Reply to  RW
15 days ago

Competent but less mobile and more fragile than Brady. Only because of Alex’s injury

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Dave
Reply to  RW
15 days ago

So what does that have to do with anything I just said? Lol. I’m talking about how everyone makes excuses for Brady’s stats, citing a soft schedule as to why. Yet nobody looks at the WFT’s schedule. Because their stats are way more skewed than ours is. That defense completely feasted in the good matchups, and crapped themselves in the tough matchups. What does Alex Smith have to do with this? But since you brought him up, let’s go over what he’s really done. 4 of his 5 wins came against the Bengals, Cowboys, 49ers, and Eagles( who intentionally lost… Read more »

Last edited 15 days ago by Dave
Eddie
Reply to  buddah
15 days ago

It is not Brady’s release of the football that worries me or us. He having doing it under 1.6 sec. It is the grey matter in the biscuit coach’s head that has been and IS the concern. His football strategy has not not agile and adaptive.

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BucsFanSection242
16 days ago

AB is a HOF on the field (his issues off the field are well known) and probably the best receiver the Bucs have.
He doesn’t drop passes, and he runs routes really well. There is a reason Brady TWICE went out of his way to get him.

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JC
JC
16 days ago

The loss of Evans hurts but I think it will benefit Brady. He loves guys that can win off the line immediately and are quick on space.

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RW
RW
Reply to  JC
16 days ago

One thing Mike has going against him is that he is slow (relatively) off the line. Same as Gronk. AB and Godwin are perfect for a short passing game especially those WR screens.

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Eddie
Reply to  RW
15 days ago

Edelman is even quicker, even at his age

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Eddie
Reply to  JC
15 days ago

Very good point. I totally agreed

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cbbucfan
16 days ago

FOX analyst Greg Jennings hit the nail on the head during the TV broadcast when analyzing AB’s first touchdown: “Defenses are going to be stressed…if Antonio Brown starts to play like this and impact games the way we know he’s always done in his career …that smells like a lot of trouble.”
LFG!!

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drdneast
16 days ago

As President Lincoln said when told Gen. Grant might have a drinking problem, “Find out what he drinks so I can have a case delivered to him.” In other words, unless a player is out committing felonies I could careless if he gets in squabbles with girlfriends, gate attendates at exclusive home enclaves where he lives or anyone else who might feel offended enough to file a lawsuit. This team has let to many good players go just because they couldn’t qualify for the Walter Payton Award. Thank god BA is looking for football players, not Boy Scouts. AB proved… Read more »

Eddie
Reply to  drdneast
15 days ago

Excellent point. And Tom knew that. Hence he lobbied for him and even host him at his house (compound). On RoJo, I thought he does NOT have any bonus tied to his 1K yard running. Because correct if I am wrong.

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