Fresh off his eight game suspension, the newest name to the Bucs’ cupboard of marquee names for Tom Brady’s offense is well known by anyone who’s paid any attention to the NFL over the better part of the last decade. The version of Brown coming into 2020 is the question, and therein lies the strategic advantage.
As much as there are questions surrounding Brown and how his personality will impact the franchise, and how his play will impact the offense there’s no question opposing defenses will have to respect his presence on the field.
How will the Buccaneers use Brown? Well, that’s the million dollar question, now isn’t it?
“It’s just going out and playing football,” said head coach Bruce Arians on the challenges facing Brown as he prepares to play on Sunday. “He knows how to play football and he knows how to run routes. It’s just learning the routes that we want, the words and the things. He’s got Chris [Godwin], Mike [Evans] and Scotty [Miller] – everybody’s going to help him.”
Doesn’t exactly say much beyond the obvious. Antonio Brown knows how to play football. We know this because we’ve witnessed it for years.
Can he still play, this is the question the New Orleans Saints are going to find out first-hand, for the first time. Which is bad news for them.
The New Orleans Saints defense enters Week 9 having allowed 19 passing touchdowns against them ranking second-worst to only the Atlanta Falcons. On top of it, they have just four interceptions this season, tying them for 10th fewest, and the have the fewest passes defensed as a team (10) in the entire league, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Narrowing the defensive outlook to just passes of 20 air-yards or more the Saints rank second-worst having given up 526-yards while surrendering three touchdowns (6th-most), getting zero interceptions, and they haven’t defensed a single pass downfield this season. Again, according to SIS.
Of course, this is just looking at what Brown can do downfield. He’s equally great, possibly more actually, when turning underneath completions into big plays.
The last time Brown played consistent football was in 2018. In that year he had receptions of 40-yards or more in over one-third of his games with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Only four times was he held in a game without at least one reception of 20-yards or more.
All of this obviously opens up the underneath game as defenses play off-coverage and deep zones to try and keep Brown from getting past their deepest defenders. The result? A modest 11.2 air-yards per target average in 2018. Just .1 yards more than Tampa Bay’s O.J. Howard that year.
In 2017, it was higher, averaging more than 13 air-yards per target on his way to producing catches of 20-yards or more in fourteen of his sixteen appearances.
Tampa Bay has another deep threat as well. In fact, Miller may be more of a deep threat than Brown is these days as he’s averaging 16.2 air-yards per target, which is the highest of any NFL receiver with more than 35 targets this season.
Miller’s impressive stats don’t stop there as he ranks among the league’s best deep ball receivers with a 65.8% catch percentage and two touchdowns.
So, how do you stop an offense with both Brown and Miller? Oh, by the way, we haven’t even talked about Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski, and (possibly) Chris Godwin.
This is the task facing Dennis Allen. Week 1 is but a memory. This version of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has had seven games between then and now, and this isn’t being played in below freezing temperatures either. Of course, Florida can be known to present it’s own environmental influences as well.
Fielding a defense allowing points, yards, and red zone scoring at a clip unlikely to produce consistent success the Saints are somehow still 5-2.
You’re not going to see peak Brown on Sunday night most likely. But his presence alone gives Allen and his defensive players an added layer of concern to focus on. Another avenue for Brady and Byron Leftwich to manipulate the defense. Someone to consider committing defensive resources to other than Evans and Miller.
These things, and what he can potentially do on his own, are all the reasons Antonio Brown is our Tampa Bay Buccaneers X-Factor for Week 9 against the New Orleans Saints.