Four downs: Who’s the Steelers’ best receiver? |
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Steelers receiver Antonio Brown shows up to practice on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

1. AB or JuJu?

It seemed inevitable from about two-thirds of the way through last season when JuJu Smith-Schuster was emerging as a 20-year-old rookie. But how long would it take Smith-Schuster to surpass Antonio Brown as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ No. 1 receiver? In three years? Five years?

How about right now?

As always, glean too much from a sample size of only three games at your own peril. But early on this season, Smith-Schuster has outperformed Brown by just about any quantitative measure — both in raw numbers (yards, catches) and averages (yards per catch, target and route run).

The Athletic was the first to broach the once-unthinkable question of whether Brown was the second-best receiver on his own team in a piece that pointed to Smith-Schuster’s sizable 9.4-5.0 edge over Brown in yards gained per targeted pass.

More subjectively, the analytics are choosing the 21-year-old Smith-Schuster to the now-30 Brown. rated Smith-Schuster as 16 th -best and Brown second-worst among 77 qualifying NFL wide receivers in its DYAR metric (defense-adjusted yards above replacement). Pro Football Focus’ wide receiver grades put Smith-Schuster at 14th in the NFL and Brown at 33rd .

2. How many flags?

When it comes to being penalized through the first three weeks of the season, the Steelers lead the NFL — by a wide margin. Their rate of 15.3 flags thrown against per game is 38 percent more than any other team; the 12.3 accepted penalties against per game is 32 percent more than the second-most penalized team (Buffalo, 9.3). The Steelers have had flags tossed against them at a rate of more 3½ per quarter and about one every 12 plays. Compared to last season, the Steelers a full extra flag per quarter thrown on the, and in 2017 they were flagged an average of once every 20.8 plays.

As the Trib’s Tim Benz recently pointed out, the three officiating crews assigned to Steelers games have tended to call more penalties than the NFL average. But the numbers still are eyebrow-raising.

3. Mike & Ben, or Chuck & Terry?

While Ben Roethlisberger has obliterated Terry Bradshaw’s career team passing records, Mike Tomlin still has (at least) another strong decade or so before he can begin to approach the coaching legacy of Chuck Noll.

Together, though, the Tomlin/Roethlisberger duo is on the cusp of passing Noll/Bradshaw in at least one significant milestone.

The next win together for Tomlin and Roethlisberger will be their 108th as a pairing and would move them past the 107 that Noll and Bradshaw accumulated over 14 seasons and 168 Bradshaw starts together. For Tomlin and Roethlisberger, it has taken 11 conjoined seasons and 161 games to hit that number. Just two other coach/QB duos (Bill Belichick/Tom Brady and Don Shula/Dan Marino) have more.

Bradshaw and Noll, of course have a likely-insurmountable advantage in what is probably the most important category: they lead in Super Bowl wins, 4-1.

4. The ‘right’ ends

The Steelers have put themselves together quite the tight end duo in Jesse James and Vance McDonald. Each ranks among the top six in NFL tight ends in receiving yards per game (68.3 and 69.0, respectively), and James is second in the NFL in 20-plus-yard catches by a tight end with five. Pro Football Focus reports Roethlisberger in Week 3 had a perfect passer rating (158.3) when he targeted McDonald, whose 4.43 yards per route run was highest among all tight ends to run at least 10 routes.

For the season, PFF gives James the NFL’s fifth-best grade among tight ends and McDonald the ninth-best. Each also rates in the top 11 of the league broken down by both receiving and run blocking. Football Outsiders has James at No. 1, and McDonald No. 6 in the NFL in DYAR.

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