The New England Patriots’ secondary will face one of its toughest tests yet Sunday in the form of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Brown is a legitimate contender to become the first wideout ever to earn NFL MVP honors. He’s been downright unstoppable over the past month, averaging 9.8 catches, 156.8 receiving yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game in wins over the Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens.
How will the Patriots cover the NFL’s top receiver? They have a few options.
Cornerback Malcolm Butler shadowed Brown when the Patriots and Steelers met in Week 7 last season, lining up opposite the star wideout on nearly every snap in New England’s 27-16 win at Heinz Field. Butler was in coverage on all but one of Brown’s 11 targets, allowing six catches for 97 yards but recording an interception in the end zone and a pass breakup.
Pittsburgh moved Brown around more when the teams met again in the 2016 AFC Championship Game, often sliding him into the slot. He still saw plenty of Butler, but cornerback Logan Ryan covered him on many of those slot snaps. The Patriots also deployed two high safeties for the majority of that game, with Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon providing help over the top on most plays.
An early injury to running back Le’Veon Bell made that a more feasible strategy, and it worked. Brown finished with seven catches on nine targets for 77 yards and no scores, and New England cruised to a 36-17 win.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Butler take the lead covering Brown again Sunday, but the Patriots also could choose to utilize Stephon Gilmore in that capacity. Gilmore has been more consistent than Butler of late, and he fared well against Brown when the Steelers visited the Buffalo Bills late last season.
The Bills played sides with their cornerbacks in that game, so Gilmore, who patrolled the defensive right side, only covered Brown on about half of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had little success in those instances, though, going 2-for-6 for 27 yards with an interception when targeting Brown while Gilmore was in coverage.
The Patriots’ defense took a step back last week, allowing 27 points in a loss to the Miami Dolphins after giving up 17 or fewer points in each of the previous eight games. New England can’t expect to completely shut down Brown, but limiting his big-play potential will be critical against this high-powered Steelers offense.
Rounding out Pittsburgh’s receiving corps are rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant and Eli Rodgers. Since Smith-Schuster and Bryant both are bigger receivers (6-foot-2 and 6-foot-5, respectively), Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe could play a larger role in this game than he has in recent weeks.
Rowe has been buried on the depth chart behind speedy nickel corner Jonathan Jones since returning from a groin injury, but at 6-foot-1, he matches up better physically against the Steelers’ larger wideouts than the 5-foot-10 Jones does.