Bengals cornerbacks only part of story in quiet day for Antonio Brown
Just how did the Cincinnati Bengals shut down Antonio Brown? In what looked liked a major mismatch on paper, Brown came out of the game with just four catches for 39 yards on 10 targets (five catchable).
It was arguably the Pittsburgh WR’s worst game since 2012, as he earned a 47.6 overall grade. Including Week 1 of this season, Brown has averaged 8.4 receptions for 115 yards per game over his past 18 games, and that includes the matchups started by backup quarterbacks Landry Jones and Michael Vick. With Roethlisberger starting, those averages rise to 9.6 catches for 132 yards and almost a touchdown per game.
Antonio Brown’s 2016 receiving statitstics
On paper, the Bengals had nobody that could match up with Antonio Brown. Adam Jones is the team’s best corner, and Brown has lit up better players than Jones with ease. On the other side, Dre Kirkpatrick covering Brown looked like a total disaster in the making.
In 2015, only Saints CB Brandon Browner earned a lower PFF grade than Kirkpatrick’s 39.6, and with the Steelers moving Brown all over the offense—and the Bengals not using their corners to track receivers, typically—Brown figured to spend some time covered by the former Alabama product.
On Sunday, Kirkpatrick recorded one of the best games of his career, coming out of the encounter without allowing a catch on three targets, while notching an interception himself. All of the targets came when covering Sammie Coates, though, not Brown.
Six of the 10 targets sent Brown’s way came with Adam Jones as the primary coverage defender, and the other four came against middle-of-the-field defenders—safeties and linebackers—after Brown had worked his way across zones. Looking at the coverage numbers alone, it appears that Jones blanketed him—six targets, one reception, 17 yards, and an interception—but they don’t tell the whole story, or even close to it.
Rain can be the great equalizer in the NFL when it comes to the passing game. Andy Dalton was the highest-graded QB in the game, and he earned an entirely pedestrian 70.6 overall grade. Ben Roethlisberger posted an ugly 45.8, meaning that the one thing that can truly slow Antonio Brown down—as we saw last season—is a QB that’s not able to get him the ball.
The interception that Roethlisberger threw to Adam Jones came on a deep dig route where Brown was isolated on Jones with half the field to play with. Had he connected, it would likely have gone for a 37-yard touchdown, but the ball was behind the in-breaking Brown, and Jones had only to go down and scoop it off the turf. The cornerback was actually beaten on the play, and would have been struggling to even save a touchdown, but because of an inaccurate pass—likely affected by the rain, given it’s funky flight—his coverage numbers took a boost, not a hit.
The one completion Brown did get on Jones was a third-down conversion, and Jones was downgraded on another three of Brown’s targets, two of which Roethlisberger missed and the other Brown dropped. This isn’t to hate on Jones, but shows that the matchup actually played out as you would expect on paper; Jones is a pretty good corner, but not one capable of limiting Brown all day without outside factors playing into it.
Strangely, the Steelers actually invited this matchup from an alignment standpoint, whereas last week against Washington—despite an obvious mismatch between Bashaud Breeland and Josh Norman, depending which side of the field he lined up on—Brown spent only 50 percent of his snaps at LWR, almost exactly his average in 2015. Against Cincinnati, though, he was there on 65.8 percent of his snaps, despite the disparity on paper between the cornerbacks being even greater.
In a time of constant matchup scheming, the Steelers really aren’t interested in trying to put Brown on the biggest mismatch they can when it comes to coverage. They work on the basis that he’s going to be open no matter who he’s going up against, and just run what they want to run on offense.
To their credit, it’s a logic that’s held up as long as he’s had somebody throwing him the ball. It may look like the Bengals found a way to shut him down in this game, but the truth is, they really didn’t. Antonio Brown was hindered primarily by the one thing that can consistently affect his numbers: having a QB get the ball to him, which in turn was badly affected by the rain. Unless the Bengals figured out a way to control the weather, they were more fortunate beneficiaries than masterminds of their own success in this one.