Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the NFL. This is not up for debate. Since his breakout season in 2013, he has thoroughly dominated the league—and he keeps getting better. Brown isn’t the biggest guy (he’s listed at 5-foot-10, 181 pounds), but his other attributes more than make up for any lack of size. One thing in particular that makes him a defensive back’s nightmare? His elite route-running ability.
Route running is an art form, a chaotic cat-and-mouse game in which a single well-placed step can be the difference between suffocating coverage or getting wide open. Thanks to years of honing his craft, Brown knows all the little tricks that are the key to successful route running. Watching him play can give young players great tips on what makes a good route, so let’s dive in and check out some of Brown’s skills.
1. Brown’s Out Route
It looks like Brown is running a simple Out route here. On paper, it has him running 3 to 5 yards straight downfield before cutting at a 90-degree angle toward the sideline. But good route running almost never looks exactly like the lines in the playbook.
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Watch how the defender moves over Brown’s outside shoulder right before the snap. This affects how Brown decides to attack him at the line of scrimmage. Brown knows that if he releases inside and tries to run his route, the defender will be underneath him when he cuts toward the sideline, taking away the throwing lane.
So Brown decides to attack the defender’s outside shoulder. Notice how he uses a basic “dip and rip” move to fight through contact. Once he gets that outside release, he pushes hard downfield and leans into the defender, forcing him to backpedal in an attempt to stay in front of Brown. As soon as he reaches his landmark, Brown sticks his inside foot in the ground and cuts sharply toward the sideline. The defender tries to react, but since he is now firmly on Brown’s inside shoulder, he really has no chance.
The Takeaway: Think about the route you’re planning to run and how the defender’s initial position can affect it. It’s all about having a plan. Brown knew that an inside release would make it tough for him to get open on this particular route, so he went for an outside release and was physical enough with his hands and body to make it work.
2. Brown’s Streak Route
Brown is facing press coverage and running a Streak route. It looks like the defender is either head-up or slightly inside of him. This leads Brown to conclude that he should take an outside release, which he does.
Brown first steps inside with his right leg, causing the defender to freeze before he bursts outside. Brown again uses his hands to cut through contact and get the defender off him. Notice the way Brown refuses to get pushed toward the sideline. Once he has a step on the defender, he works to get on top of him. This is known as “stacking” the defender. It not only makes it more difficult for the defender to make a play on the ball, it also gives the receiver room on either side to make a catch. Brown easily burns the cornerback before the safety comes over to provide help. The safety commits too early, allowing Brown to make the catch even though the pass from QB Ben Roethlisberger is underthrown.
The Takeaway: Stacking the defender is a great way to get into good position on a vertical route. It prevents the defender from staying on either your inside or outside hip and allows you to use your body to shield him. Even if you’re running a corner or post route, stacking the defender before you make your cut makes it much more difficult for him to stay with you.
3. Brown’s Curl Route
It looks like this is a basic 12-yard Curl route. Brown does nothing dramatic, but the little things he does make a big difference. When he lines up, he notices that the cornerback (No. 28, Greg Toler) is slightly outside of him. If Brown runs straight downfield, the defender will easily stay on his hip.
So instead of running straight downfield, Brown runs right at Toler. This is known as “stemming”—you run the initial part of your route in a certain direction to make the defender move that way. Toler widens slightly and then slows his feet until he sees which way Brown will cut. Look how close Brown gets to Toler before he cuts. This technique is sometimes known as “stepping on the defender’s toes”—you run right at him to freeze him before you make a last-second cut. You get so close, you nearly step on his toes.
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When Brown cuts inside, notice how he uses his hands to perform a club and swim move. This prevents Toler from getting his hands on him and slowing him down. Now Brown has a step on Toler, which makes his next move especially effective. Brown suddenly sticks his foot into the ground and comes back toward the football, while Toler’s momentum forces him to drift downfield and away from the play.
The Takeaway: Stemming is a huge part of good route running. By slightly angling the initial part of your route in one direction or another, you force the defender to react that way before you cut in the other direction. “Stepping on the defender’s toes” is another great technique to use on various routes. It forces the defender to stay in front of you and wait on you to make a move. The key is to use your hands to fight through contact, as Brown did here with his swim move.
4. Brown’s Corner Route
It’s tough to say exactly what this route is, but it looks like either a Corner route or a Slant-Corner route. It probably has a different name in the Steelers’ playbook, but that’s not important here. What is important is the way Brown uses both his eyes and his pace to get open.
First things first. Brown takes an inside release because he notices the corner over him (No. 20, Kenneth Acker) is on his outside shoulder. Since Brown knows the initial portion of his route requires him to run inside, he takes an easy inside release. Once Brown approaches the goal line, things get interesting.
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Brown begins to slow down and turns his eyes toward the QB—movements you would expect from a receiver who’s about to receive a pass. This freezes both defenders before Brown suddenly bursts toward the corner of the end zone. A good pass makes for an easy touchdown. Acker actually had the right idea at first, as he seemed to be dropping back toward the corner of the end zone. However, once he sees Brown slow down and look back toward the QB, he quickly stops dropping and tries to react. By the time his reaction step hits the ground, Brown is on his way to the back corner of the end zone, and Acker is burnt toast.
The Takeaway: Not every single portion of every single route has to be run at 100 percent full speed. Changing your pace at the right time can toy with defenders and help you get open. Your eyes are another tool—defensive backs normally look at the receiver rather than the QB. If you look back toward the QB, the defender will assume that you’re expecting the ball.
5. Brown’s In Route
When your routes are this nice, even Joe Haden can’t keep up with you. The play starts with Haden in press coverage directly over Brown. Brown uses a quick fake to get an inside release. He then begins running straight downfield, but notice how he sort of leans into Haden as he runs. This is intentional.
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One, it ensures he can run the route vertically and not let Haden push him off course. Two, It allows him to perform a mini push-off when he cuts inside. It’s not enough to warrant a penalty, but you can clearly see Brown extend his right arm to get Haden off him. Another reason for Brown’s success is the sharpness of his cuts. Many receivers fade upfield when they cut in, rounding off the route and giving defensive backs an area to intercept the pass. Watch how Haden’s momentum carries him back as he tries to cut in to follow Brown. That’s similar to the issue many receivers encounter.
The Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to use your hands at the top of a route. Offensive pass interference is obviously illegal, but you’re allowed to remove a defender’s hands from your body. Also, making a sharp, flat cut on any type of In or Dig route is crucial. It should almost feel like you’re running back toward the line of scrimmage. It takes a lot of practice, but it pays off.
6. Brown’s Improvisation
A major part of football is improvisation. Things often don’t go according to plan, and the ability to think on your feet and make a play is important. It looks like Brown was initially going to run a Corner route here. But Roethlisberger gets flushed out of the pocket and has to scramble.
As soon as Brown sees this, he adjusts the course of his route to give his QB an area to throw to. When he puts his hand up, you can see that he’s expecting the ball on the Corner route. But an instant later, he notices there’s no way his QB can make that throw under the circumstances. So he sticks his foot in the ground and cuts to an area where his QB can find him.
The Takeaway: When your QB is in trouble, you’ve got to improvise. You can’t keep running your route like you would if he had a perfect pocket. The basic rule is that if you see your QB scrambling right, bend your route to the right. If you see him scrambling left, bend your route left. The worst thing you can do is just stand there and watch your QB run for his life (unless you’re wide open, of course).