How Antonio Brown, Steelers exploited Redskins’ coverage scheme

Antonio Brown was targeted just twice when facing Josh Norman on Monday, with both throws broken up.

| 10 months ago
Redskins CB Josh Norman

(Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Josh Stewart

    Norman did good when he was covering Brown. But if you’re going to claim to be one of the best DBs in the League, you probably should be able to follow their best (and currently only) WR so that your team doesn’t get shit on.

    • Runner1967

      He did ok, he also got beat deep by AB, Ben didn’t see it, if he had of Norman would’ve been burned for a 60 yard plus TD.

      • Guest

        Around what quarter/time was this?

      • wva88

        That was a smart play by Norman because given Ben’s position on the field he couldn’t have completed that pass. If he did attempt it, either he would have been destroyed by the converging defenders, or several DB would have had plenty of time to make the INT.

        • Runner1967

          Rubbish he flat out got beat and calling a smart play is assuming Norman knew what the results of the pass rush would be. No CB worth their salt plays on that assumption if they did they be out of the league damn fast.

  • David Japhet-Mathias

    Surely Breeland received a 0.0 grade for his performance last night?

    • Roy

      I guess you forgot he had an Int!!!

      • David Japhet-Mathias

        0.01 then.

  • LostAlone

    I think it’s just baffling when teams don’t put their shadow corner on the best receiver on the field. It’s just a poor use of resources. It doesn’t matter how good Norman plays if he’s covering a guy who isn’t getting thrown to. Having him stuck on one side wastes his talents and that’s a coaching problem.

    Every time we talk about teams who’s corners stay on the same side all night it always ends up being because someone just picked their scheme apart. What was the ‘Skins answer if Brown just stayed on the other side all night long? Just let him rack up 200 yards?

    • PFFSamMonson

      I think it works as an idea to play sides, but you need to change your coverages around to take advantage of the elite guy. There’s zero point in just lining up L/R and playing your regular defense.

      • LostAlone

        Having a base D that plays sides is reasonable enough. The idea of ‘can’t throw to half the field’ is disruptive certainly, especially against a more average team. But when the Steelers showed they were successful throwing the other way and Brown was beating Breeland they didn’t seem to have any plan. It’s like they didn’t want to change anything in the game at all, just were stuck in that vanilla scheme and didn’t know what to do about someone just picking on one guy.

    • wva88

      The article failed to mention the problems with tracking one receiver: First, you automatically telegraph the coverage, and even poor NFL QB will destroy a defense if there is no disguise. Second, a defense that does this leaves itself incredibly vulnerable to pick plays. Finally, there are too many things that an offense can do to create confusion and/or defeat the “cover the number one” scheme, such as lining the WR in the backfield, putting him in motion, using a bunch formation, and so on.

      “Have the #1 CB tail the #1 WR” is one of those good things that sounds good on paper or on the screen, but if you actually implement it it can leave a defense with an even bigger can of worms.

      • Malachi

        telegraphing coverage isn’t always a problem, the denver broncos almost exclusively run man coverage out of cover-1 or cover-1 blitzes. otherwise you make some very valid points

      • LostAlone

        When the corner doesn’t follow his man then it’s telegraphing that Brown is in a favorable match up, which he was all night long. No matter how perfectly you design your scheme a good offense is going to read it, especially when you just refuse to change it. No matter how well you scheme coverage almost always comes down to the individual match up. You either take Norman vs Brown all night and trust your big acquisition to do his job well, or you try to hide what your doing and end up in horrible match up everywhere else. Look at how well the second one ended up.

      • Anonymous

        You can disguise the looks. The Jets did/do this with Revis. Arizona with Peterson. The corner can follow a guy in motion, then when he gets set you can adjust the call. It doesn’t have to be a telegraph of the coverage. As a matter of fact, Carolina rarely ran man coverage with Norman and he he’d line up across from the best guy unless said guy went into the slot. It can still be a zone, but it could be what’s now being called “a matchup zone”. Seattle started doing this with Sherman last year.

        Just because a guy follows doesn’t mean it is a telegraph of man coverage. Only the Jets did that with Revis pre-ACL and were successful. All this other stuff about “shadowing” doesn’t necessarily mean “man-to-man with no help, never run zone”. Only Revis pre-ACL was that, and even then, it wasn’t 100% of plays, just a majority of them.

  • Malachi

    maybe the reason why norman doesn’t shadow opposing team’s number 1 WR is he isn’t good enough to do so, just maybe

    • Jay V Of Considerable Influenc

      But for the fact that his success rate against other team’s #1s last year was very high…

      • Malachi

        but for the fact that it was only one out of his four years in the league…

        • Jay V Of Considerable Influenc

          While that is true, that doesn’t really support your original statement. The fact is, he DID shadow #1s last year (and with great success)…almost exclusively so. Whether he’s good enough to do it is up for debate. That he DID do it, is not. Furthermore, the Skins did not avoid putting Nornan on Brown in this game, but rather, they just stuck to a stupid game plan that backfired.

          • Malachi

            i said maybe, just maybe.

            and furthermore i only recall him shadowing in one game last year, vs the giants, his lowest graded game of the year. as best as i can recall he played LCB in cover 3 the majority of the rest of the year.

          • Jay V Of Considerable Influenc

            While you are correct that the Panthers played mostly Cover 3 (which is whole ‘nother argument vis a vis Norman), but as needed, he switched fields to draw specific assignments (vs ATL and Jones, and vs. NO and Cooks specifically come to mind.)
            Regardless, will be interesting to see how Skins handle this going forward, and specifically against Dez this weekend.

          • Malachi


  • ProFoo

    I think it was intentional. ‘Skins coaches were betting on Rothelisberger to make a mistake and putting too much on Breeland to make a play. But both throwing and catching were flawless and Breeland got beat.

    • LostAlone

      I don’t know if that line of reasoning makes the decision better or worse. I mean, we’ve seen Ben make mistakes before and throw away great performances. It wouldn’t be unheard of for the Steelers (especially missing Bell and Bryant) to struggle because of INTs.

      Except… What the hell team have the Skins coaches been watching if they think that? How can you look at the team from last year and think that Ben and Brown aren’t a devastating combination? How can you watch them in games against great defenses like Denver and figure that nah, this isn’t something you need to cover.

      Hoping that, in short, the Steelers will just beat themselves during their offensive prime in a year when they are gunning for at least a conference title is just folly. It’s stupid.

      Even if they don’t think Norman can beat Brown all night long holy crap at least he’s going to do a better job than Breeland.

  • Bear Brown

    They didn’t give breeland help, hall kept coming up to lb level trying to play the run, thinking his speed could help him recover. But it’s only one game. They have tape on starters now as a group. Let’s see where they go from here

  • 7deez steel

    Did anyone notice Norman got beat by Coates and Rogers? Brown was not the only receiver who caught the ball. People are talking like Brown was the only receiver on the field. Norman got beat by both of Steeler’s weakest WR. The skins thought they could damage control brown with a #2 corner and safety help while putting Norman on the #2 weaker WR. No they want to save face. Nice try, lol.