Titans Tape Study: Why is A.J. Brown dropping the ball?

After starting the season off with four games and zero drops, A.J. Brown has hit a slump, accumulating six drops in his last six games. Brown now ranks 4th in the NFL in drop percentage at 12% on the season. This issue has seemingly come out of nowhere, because he never had this issue in college or his first year in the league. He only had four total drops his entire rookie season. In fact, I would have called his natural hands one of Brown’s stronger traits.

To investigate, I went back to the film to identify any patterns in his recent drops to try and determine the root of the problem. Is the issue something that will pass, or something we should be concerned with moving forward?

The Tape

So, let’s dive into all six of Brown’s drops on the season, working in chronological order.

Drop #1

Brown’s streak of drops started in Week 8 against the Bengals on a routine slant route. Ryan Tannehill puts it on the money for Brown, but it slips straight through his hands. Brown’s catching technique is sound on this drop though. He makes a diamond with his hands and reaches out to control the ball away from his body. A simple lapse in concentration.

Drop #2

Again on his second drop, I have no problems with Brown’s actual technique. He does a nice job plucking the ball out of the air, he just struggles to corral it after contact. Jaylon Johnson does just enough to disrupt the catch once Brown has it in his grasp. This is another one Brown should have easily had. Credit to the defender for obstructing Brown’s process.

Drop #3

This drop against the Colts was an impactful one. Early in the game and leading 7-0, Brown could have potentially taken this ball to the house and changed the whole direction of the game. Who knows what happens if he catches this to put the Titans up 14-0?

In contrast to his first two drops, Brown actually doesn’t have his hands aligned with the ball while trying to catch it over the shoulder. The ball lands a bit lateral to where Brown has his hands. As a result, the pass bounces off his outside shoulder and eventually falls to the ground rather than into the basket of his hands. Also, credit to Tannehill for dropping an absolute dime on this throw under pressure. That big of contact by the defender as Brown turns to accelerate up the sideline may have been enough to throw off his concentration.

Drop #4

This next clip was actually Brown’s second drop in that first Colts game. However, this one is a bit harder to blame Brown for. Brown again approaches the ball with good technique and hand alignment, even maximally extending back for the ball. You would like to see him haul this one in, but the ball is placed behind Brown, making for a difficult catch.

Drop #5

Brown’s fifth drop of the season came in the second game against the Colts. It was on a 3rd & 4 at the end of the second quarter to keep the drive going deeper into Colts’ territory. Again — this is going to be super repetitive — Brown has sound technique. If anything, I think Tannehill places the ball too far outside. Especially with the heat that Tannehill puts on this pass, that is not an easy ball to bring in.

Drop #6

Brown’s most recent drop is his worst in my opinion. Brown has a step on his man down the field for a potential 35-yard gain. He has his hands in line with the ball, but is unable to squeeze it in. He is even looking the ball in. There is no excuse for this drop.

Conclusions

Six drops in six games sounds really bad. However, having watched the film, I feel much better about Brown’s struggles, especially because I found no issues with his technique. On five of the six drops, Brown had good hand alignment to the ball, was snatching the ball out away from his body, and was even looking the ball in. Brown’s issues are different from a player like Taywan Taylor, who’s problems stemmed from his technique (body-catching) and poor hand-eye coordination. I believe over time the sound technique will prevail and this spurt of drops will be put in the rearview mirror.

So if it’s not his technique, what is causing the drops?

I would attribute these drops to a combination of poor ball placement, deeper targets, some mental lapses, and the general volatility of the sport.

I would say that two of the six drops (#4 and #5) were caused more by poor ball placement. While they were both in Brown’s reach, he was maximally extended and put in awkward positions to make the catch. Obviously, as your de facto “#1 WR,” you would like to see him come down with those catches, but it’s hard to put the full blame on him.

Another two came on deep passing plays (#3 and #6). While Brown should have easily caught both of these throws, it should be noted that there’s a significantly higher distribution of drops on deep passing plays amongst all receivers throughout the league. Some of the best deep ball threats like D.K. Metcalf have three drops, while Julio Jones, Terry McLaurin, and Chase Claypool all have two drops each on deep passing plays. This is because there are more variables that you have to account for when catching a deep ball, such as catching the ball over your shoulder and tracking the ball down field. This is not to justify Brown’s drops, but to show that he is not alone here.

Similar to playing quarterback or even kicking field goals, there is also a big mental aspect to catching a football. Sometimes the technique can be perfect, but the mental aspect can hinder the performance. Early on in his career, Packers’ wide receiver Davante Adams had his own issues with drops. In an interview, Adams talked about how it was a mental struggle, but these drops didn’t prevent Adams from developing into one of the top receivers in the league today.

“It’s hard to let it go. You really want to have that, they call it, the DB mentality. Just let it go, and go to the next play. Forget about it. But it’s hard.”

Davante Adams on his issues with drops

This mental battle has been identified as the “yips.” Most of the studies concerning the yips have been done on sports like golf, baseball, and tennis, but the general findings can also apply to catching a football. When you have one drop and you keep thinking about it, it can cascade into multiple if you let those thoughts manifest. When discussing his drops, it does seem there is a mental component that is hindering Brown.

However, I still think these drops from Brown are being completely overblown. I mean, this take below is ridiculous.

A lot of the top receivers in the NFL have had their seasons where they have drop issues. Calvin Johnson had the second-most drops in 2011 with 14, Julio Jones was sixth in 2015 with 10, and Randy Moss was third in 2007 with 11. We still consider all three players some of the best receivers to have ever played. Even this season, D.K. Metcalf, who is leading the league in receiving yards, is ranked second in drops with 9. To keep this in perspective, Brown only has six drops this season, and ten total in his career (excluding playoffs).

Again, this is not to excuse Brown’s problems, but looking at the bigger picture, drops are just a part of playing receiver. If you can still provide explosive plays and your overall net production is benefiting the team, like it is for Brown, a couple of drops per season is nothing really to worry about. For most star receivers, these drops come in waves, but as long as Brown keeps producing and doesn’t let the mental aspect manifest into anything more, I have no doubts that this issue will eventually pass.

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