Washington-Pittsburgh was supposed to be a fascinating matchup of one of the league’s best cornerbacks trying to lock down one of the league’s best wide receivers. Josh Norman would get to guard Antonio Brown in his first game for Washington since signing a contract this offseason to become the NFL’s highest-paid corner. With a trash-talker like Norman and a performer like Brown, we expected fireworks.
Instead, Brown spent most of the night absolutely toasting Washington’s second-best corner, Bashaud Breeland. Washington chose to line up Norman on the left side of the field rather than continually matching up on Brown.
That gave the Steelers the choice of deciding who would guard Brown. It was an easy choice. With running back Le’Veon Bell suspended, and wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton suspended and injured, respectively, the Steelers offense was depleted. Brown was pretty much their only offensive weapon. Of course they chose to have him avoid Washington’s best defensive weapon.
On the sparing plays Norman guarded Brown, the wide receiver had zero catches. When Breeland guarded Brown, he had seven catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns.
The first TD was a bomb on 4th-and-1 that passed directly through Breeland’s hands:
The second saw Brown calmly make a difficult over-the-shoulder catch while Breeland tumbled to the turf:
In fairness to Breeland, a rapidly improving player in his third year in the league, he’s a pretty good cornerback. He even had a pick tonight. But even great cornerbacks can’t regularly stop Brown. Breeland was doomed.
By the end of the game, Breeland looked exasperated, increasingly unable to stop Brown and seemingly too gassed to contribute in other parts of the game — he got juked twice on a pair of run plays where he needed to step up and get an arm on the rusher.
Meanwhile, the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL stood on the other side of the field, making sure Ben Roethlisberger didn’t pass to guys like Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates. (It’s okay if you don’t know who they are — that’s the point.)
So, um, why didn’t Washington let Norman guard Brown?
It’s a choice they made when they designed their scheme, not a choice they make before each individual game. Some teams choose to have their best cornerback play a side of the field, and other teams choose to have their best cornerback track the opposing team’s best receiver. Pro Football Focus discussed the issue of cornerbacks “tracking” opposing stars in more depth than I’ll go into here.
The Seahawks prominently asked Richard Sherman to play the left side of the field for several years. Some felt this was a mark against Sherman -- how could he be the NFL’s best cornerback if he didn’t always guard the opponent’s best player? But Seattle believed that if Sherman shut down one entire side, they could stack the rest of their defense toward shutting down the other side. As you probably know, it was pretty effective.
In Carolina, Norman played both sides of the field. But in Washington, they’ve clearly decided he should do what Sherman did in Seattle.
And if you’re operating that way, it means your entire defensive scheme is built around shading to the side your lockdown corner isn’t playing. It wasn’t fun to watch Brown torch Breeland over and over, but if Washington had asked Norman to switch sides, it would’ve also been asking the other 10 players on the team to tweak their responsibilities based on Norman/Brown’s location every single play. That’s a lot to adjust on the fly.
When asked about the Norman-Brown matchup before the game, Washington coaches didn’t hide the fact that the Steelers would get to decide who guarded Brown.
As the coach continued though it became clear Norman will not exclusively be on Brown. The Steelers do a "great job" of moving Brown around, from the left side to the right side and in the slot, that the gameplan would be too much for the rest of the secondary if Norman constantly mirrored Brown.
"We’ll deploy a certain, different number of players on him, but they counter-balance that just by moving him around," [defensive coordinator Joe] Barry said.
Hypothetically, adding a great cornerback to your team should make life easier for everybody. But Monday night, it was a nightmare for Breeland, as Norman’s reputation and Washington’s scheme ensured he’d spend the entire night matched up with a guy he simply couldn’t handle.
We shouldn’t blame Washington’s loss on the strategy. For starters, they lost by 22 points, worse in all facets of the game than Pittsburgh. And there’s no guarantee putting Norman on Brown would’ve made things better. Brown is an absolute menace, capable of wreaking havoc on anybody. Last year against Denver, he burnt Chris Harris Jr. for 16 receptions and 189 yards, and Harris is as good as just about any corner in the league.
Maybe in the future, Washington’s method of using Norman will pay off. It’s not necessarily a bad concept, and has been used effectively by other teams with top corners in the past. But they definitely looked a little bit silly Monday night. It’s unfortunate their first game after handing Norman megamillions was against a wide receiver who could make pretty much any defensive scheme look stupid.