Points and picks: Sizing up Antonio Brown's confounding season

PITTSBURGH -- Antonio Brown still belongs in the conversation for the NFL’s best wide receivers. He’s pacing for a sixth straight 100-catch season. He's one touchdown short of a career high.

But one Brown statistic in particular speaks to the conundrum with the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense as it relates to how defenses play him, and how JuJu Smith-Schuster benefits.

Brown leads the NFL in touchdowns (13) and targeted passes resulting in an interception (11), according to ESPN Stats & Information. No player has accomplished that feat over a 16-game season since targets were first charted in 2006. Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans and new Kansas City Chiefs receiver Kelvin Benjamin are tied for second in targeted interceptions with seven.

No spectrum better explains why Smith-Schuster has almost as many targets as Brown, 141 to 146. Throwing to Smith-Schuster is a safer proposition right now, largely because of the attention Brown draws from safeties.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger explained this thoroughly on his weekly radio show on 93.7 the Fan back on Dec. 11.

"He’s one of the best in the business right now. Teams are doubling him," Roethlisberger said. "They put a corner on him and they have a safety over the top. They’ve been doing that for years now. A lot of times, AB still has huge numbers because we find ways -- I don’t want to say force it to him -- but we find ways to get him the ball. Now, when you have JuJu on the other side being singled or a different type of zone on that side with only one guy on him, we don’t have to force it to AB. JuJu can make plays and it’s one-on-one.

"Listen, I love AB to death, but if they want to keep doubling AB, we’ll keep throwing to other guys, because at some point they are going to have to stop putting two guys on AB and start respecting the other guy on the other side of the field. When that happens, AB’s just going to do what he always does."

The numbers bear all this out. While Brown remains the primary big-play option, Smith-Schuster leads the Steelers in catches (95) and yards (1,274).

Brown’s 90 catches and 1,112 yards rank 11th leaguewide, which is a dip from a 2017 pace that featured 1,500-plus yards through 13 games.

"If you look at AB’s numbers this year, they are down, but yet he’s still in the tops in everything," Roethlisberger added. "That just speaks to the type of player he is and the work he puts in and just how special he is."

Brown doesn’t look like a different player at age 30. He’s still just as fast and has a flare for the big play. His double move to get loose on two Patriots defenders for a 17-yard touchdown reminds us he hasn’t lost a step. And it’s not like double teams are new terrain for Brown -- he has seen them most of his career.

But the interception rate could make recapturing his gaudy numbers of old difficult unless Smith-Schuster starts drawing consistent safety help.

Roethlisberger is pacing for a 5,000-yard season, yet about 25 percent of his work is going to Brown despite a revolving door of No. 3 receivers. Despite 15 interceptions, tied for the league lead, Roethlisberger has made efforts to spread the ball to several playmakers and take what the defense gives him. In Sunday’s 17-10 win over the New England Patriots, Roethlisberger completed passes to eight different receivers.

A longtime connection between Roethlisberger and Brown suggests they will consistently get hot again: Their 780 completions together ranks second among NFL duos behind Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (953).

Brown knows he has two more games to increase that number.

"I count it up at the end of the year," said Brown about evaluating his performance.