Seahawks' secondary holds own against Brown, Bryant, but Wheaton shines
Heading into Week 12, one of the most interesting matchups to watch was Seattle’s secondary against Pittsburgh’s receiving corps.
Would the Seahawks put their best cover-corner, Richard Sherman, on Antonio Brown, arguably the league’s best receiver? Or would they try and match him up with Martavis Bryant, a more natural physical analogue? Maybe Seattle would leave Sherman on his regular left cornerback island, and just play sides of the field. It was the great unknown.
As it turned out, Seattle put Sherman on Brown for most of the game, and it worked. Brown was held to six catches for 51 yards (three catches for 24 yards against Sherman), and the Seahawks won in a shootout, 39-30.
The Seahawks deactivated regular starter Cary Williams, making him a healthy scratch for the encounter, and instead backup DeShawn Shead marked the lanky Bryant for most of the game. Shead had started just one game this season, and that was at safety, so this was a bold strategy—but it paid dividends.
Shead and Bryant had a good back-and-forth over the game. Shead saw 14 targets, 11 of them going in the direction of Bryant, and while he did allow 69 yards, they came on just five receptions—one of them accounting for most (40) of the yardage. The 26-year-old defensive back also batted away three passes for incompletions.
Sherman was thrown at nine times when covering Brown, and allowed only 24 yards, notching an interception in the process. When Sherman was targeted in this game, he yielded a passer rating of 0.0.
That passer rating statistic was helped by a yellow penalty flag not being thrown by the official on his interception, when it easily could have been. Brown and Sherman were hand-fighting during the route beyond the 5-yard grace period from the line of scrimmage. The battle saw Brown fall to the turf, leaving Sherman as the only player in the vicinity of the pass for an easy pick.
Seattle’s game plan to neutralize Brown and Bryant was a pretty effective one, but it came at the cost of allowing Markus Wheaton—the forgotten receiver in Pittsburgh—to gash the Seahawks for 201 yards and a score on nine receptions.
Wheaton was essentially unaccounted for all day long, while the other two receivers drew the attention. He was targeted 12 times, and you only need to look at the players covering him on those attempts to see the difference in how the defense was playing him. Five different Seahawks were in primary coverage on Wheaton’s targets, showing Seattle did not account for him in their preparation.
Wheaton did the majority of his damage when he found himself matched up with linebacker Bobby Wagner, who surrendered a catch on all four of the targets on which he was the primary coverage defender, for 96 yards.
This game was a fascinating case study in game-planning. The Seahawks set out to take away Pittsburgh’s two biggest threats, and if you had told them pre-game that Shead would hold his own against Bryant, and Sherman would more or less erase Brown from the game, they would have taken that in a heartbeat.
The results also showed the depth of the Pittsburgh offense. The Steelers were able to adjust on the fly, tapping the next man in their arsenal. It was a good sign to see Wheaton repeatedly make big plays, even if the Steelers didn’t ultimately win the shootout.