Small Receivers Providing Big Impact

Whether it's Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh or Randall Cobb in Green Bay, there's been a mini-revolution, with smaller receivers taking advantage of the rules to work their magic. (Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY)

PITTSBURGH — The NFL's leading receiver — the one taken in the sixth round of the 2010 draft as an unknown, undersized project — would like to have a word.

"I'm not a little guy," Antonio Brown says.

Point out that at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds the frenetic Pittsburgh Steelers star is hardly considered an NFL prototype, and Brown shrugs.

"I'm not a little guy," he repeats.

And the scouts who figured he was a fringe prospect at best four years ago, favoring the likes of Marcus Easley, Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe, all 6-2 or taller, all no longer in the league?

"They made a mistake," Brown said with a smile.

You think?

Freed by a crackdown on illegal contact in the secondary, bolstered by creative sets designed to get him in open space and emboldened by a chip on his shoulder that never seems to go away, Brown is spearheading a mini-revolution at his position.

Scooch over Calvin Johnson. Make room Julio Jones. Hold up there A.J. Green and Dez Bryant, you've got company.

Midway through 2014, the NFL's most electric playmakers are the guys whose modest frames belie big-time numbers.

After 10 weeks of play, Brown's 70 receptions and 1,070 yards receiving are tops in the league and his eight touchdowns are tied for fourth. Brown's childhood buddy T.Y. Hilton of the Indianapolis Colts — generously listed at 5-9 — is third in yards and sixth in yards per catch.

They're not alone. Seven of the top 11 players in yards receiving are under 6 feet tall.

Emmanuel Sanders (5-11) is developing into Peyton Manning's favorite target in Denver. Golden Tate (5-10) has become so explosive the Lions are soaring even with Johnson — Megatron himself — struggling to stay healthy. Julian Edelman (5-10) is Wes Welker version 2.0 in New England. The Redskins are a hot mess but DeSean Jackson (5-10) and his not-a-typo 21.8 yards per reception offer the beleaguered franchise and quarterback Robert Griffin III a glimmer of hope.

In Baltimore, a rejuvenated 35-year-old Steve Smith is the old-school boss in the midst of a late-career renaissance. The 5-9 veteran already has four 100-yard receiving games at a time when most guys at his position have evolved into part-time role players if they even have a job at all.

"The little guys are coming back to rule the world," Smith said with laugh. "We're coming back (and) we're here to stay. That's the bottom line. That's what it's about. The big guys, you can throw it up to them but at the end of the day when you want to move the sticks you have to throw it to the little guys. We move the needle."

They're doing more than that. They're finding the end zone with the same frequency as their larger — and largely higher profile — colleagues.

The 26-year-old Brown may be the most dangerous player in the league, turning every slant or quick screen into a showcase for his roadrunner footwork regardless of where the Steelers are at on the field. While brawny tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and supersized wideouts like Demaryius Thomas remain matchup issues in tight spaces, Brown and his buddies are making an impact from goal line to goal line.

Brown, Sanders and Green Bay's Randall Cobb are in the top 10 in red zone receptions, a tribute to their uncanny ability to wiggle free when opposing cornerbacks try to get physical and the NFL's increased policing of the pushing and shoving that goes on downfield.

"I think it's helping receivers in general," Cobb said. "But definitely with our quickness and being able to get separation from the DB at the top of routes, and them not being able to grab has definitely helped."

Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor has spent a dozen seasons chasing receivers while watching fads come and go. Witnessing Brown's evolution from raw talent to unstoppable force is symbolic of the NFL's shifting the balance of power to the offense.

"Coordinators are putting small guys off the line, making sure you're not able to get your hands on them, using stacked positions, putting a receiver behind a tight end," Taylor said. "They're finding ways to maneuver these small guys and it's been working."

The inability to bump players like Smith or Brown before they get to full speed can make for a miserable four quarters.

"You give a guy like that some space, I'm not even talking about a lot of space, I'm talking about 'man in the phone booth' kind of space, he's going to take off," Taylor said.

Clearly, there's still a place for receivers built like small forwards. Pittsburgh's offense didn't truly take off until 6-4 rookie Martavis Bryant was inserted into the lineup last month as the lanky yin to Brown's quicksilver yang.

Even facing constant double teams, Brown is on pace to set single-season team records in every major statistical receiving category, though he's barely ahead of Hilton, a former youth football teammate when the two were growing up in Florida.

Hilton and Andrew Luck are building the same rapport in Indianapolis that Brown shares with Ben Roethlisberger. Last Monday against the Giants, Luck floated a pass toward Hilton in the end zone that Hilton wrestled away from Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a taller cornerback, for a TD.

The catch is a fitting symbol to the tenacity of smaller receivers who've spent most of their lives trying to carve out their own space in a sport that can't seem to get big enough fast enough.

That trumps any rules, Steelers wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said.

"I just think it's the dog in them," Heyward-Bey said. "I think they have the mindset that even though they're shorter, they think they're 6-3, 6-4 and they can go out there and make plays."


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