How Antonio Brown, Steelers exploited Redskins' coverage scheme
An elite cover corner allows you to do many things on defense, but if you don’t choose to take advantage of him, it can on occasion be more of a problem than a benefit.
There are two schools of thought about how you deploy a top-level corner within your secondary; you either use him to shadow a particular receiver all across the field, or you leave him on one side of the defense and roll coverage away from him to help out everybody else. The benefit of the first method is obviously that you know at all times that you have your best cover guy on the No. 1 receiving threat.
If you don’t do that, and an offense wants to go that route, they can just line up their top target on the other side of the field all day long, and go after your No. 2 or No. 3 cover guy. The Packers did that a couple of seasons ago to Richard Sherman, and you run the risk of an unfavorable matchup destroying your gameplan, despite one of the best cover guys in the league being on the field.
Washington elected not to have Josh Norman—last year’s star performer at cornerback—track Antonio Brown. Instead, they played left and right corner with Bashaud Breeland on the other side, matching up with the offense as it came to them. The Steelers didn’t actually change what they do on offense to take advantage of this from an alignment standpoint, but it still had a major impact on the game.
Brown lined up on the left side of the offense—against Breeland—on exactly 50 percent of his snaps (33 of 66). Last season, he was deployed at LWR on 48.6 percent of his snaps (548 of 1,128), and was targeted on 32 percent of his snaps—the same rate as last season.
The only real difference then between the two sides was the coverage. In 2015, Brown was targeted on 38 percent of his routes when he lined up on the right side of the offense, but last night, the threat of Norman reduced that to 27 percent.
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In 2015, Brown gained 863 yards just from lining up at RWR, averaging 15.1 yards per reception and scoring five times. On Monday night, he caught one pass for 13 yards, and it didn’t come against Norman. When he was covered by Washington’s No. 1 corner, he was 0 for 2 on targets. Effectively, Norman blanked him when the two went head-to-head, but Breeland on the other side wasn’t nearly as effective or fortunate.
When Brown was covered by Washington’s No. 2 corner, he caught eight of the nine passes thrown his way for 113 yards and two scores.
Brown was able to have a pretty strong overall production day just on the 50 percent of snaps he lined up on the left side of the defense—away from Norman—against the second-best guy Washington can deploy.
That’s not a slight on Breeland, who was our 23rd-ranked CB by the end of last season, with an 81.3 grade. Right now, Antonio Brown is the toughest assignment a cornerback can draw, and a stress test of your coverage plan—one that proved too tough for the system Washington ran. At least against Brown, the plan of playing left and right cornerback didn’t pay off. Norman held up his end of the bargain, limiting Brown on the snaps the two faced off for, actually breaking up both of the balls thrown Brown’s way when he was covering him.
Maybe Josh Norman tracking him all game long wouldn’t have fared any better, but it is unlikely it would have been a worse overall result than the damage Brown was able to inflict against Breeland just on half of his snaps in the game.
At least against Brown and the Steelers, the Washington gameplan of playing sides of the field with their cornerbacks was a failure. Maybe against receivers that aren’t named Antonio Brown, it will maintain better integrity as a scheme, but alternatively, the team needs to consider some changes, either by making use of Norman’s elite cover skills to track receivers all game, or by warping and cheating their scheme far more than they did Monday night towards helping Breeland out.
The first week of NFL action can be about learning lessons for the season ahead. Washington was taught a harsh one by Brown and the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night, and the question of what they take from it remains open. Right now, they have one of the best—and highest-paid—cornerbacks in football, but it didn’t matter because of how he was deployed.