The New England Patriots enjoy removing the #1 offensive player from the opposing team. That's what Bill Belichick coaches and that's how the defense executes. If the Steelers are going to win the game, it won't be because receiver Antonio Brown took over- it will be because the supporting cast beat the Patriots depth.
Running back LeVeon Bell is suspended. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant is suspended. The Steelers are opening up at a distinct advantage, and while Belichick's plan will require other players on the Steelers to step up, it will only be successful if the New England defenders do their job and reduce Brown's impact on the game.
Antonio Brown is Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's version of Julian Edelman. Roethlisberger will force passes to Brown even if the receiver is not open and Brown will make a huge play. He runs deeper routes than Edelman, which leads to better yards per reception, and he's not restricted to the same type of timing offense. He freewheels down the field when Roethlisberger buys time and he can make the big play.
He has great concentration, he high points the ball in its trajectory, and he's generally fearless across the middle. He's the only player in NFL history with more than 8 consecutive games with 7+ receptions, and he's in the middle of a 12-game streak that will be put to the test on Thursday. And for the record, Edelman is in the middle of a 7-game streak, and could tie Demaryius Thomas's 2014 2nd place run on Thursday, too.
Oh, and he returns punts.
I went to the game tape to see how Brown wins and how he can be limited. You might be surprised to hear that the Jacksonville Jaguars were the team best able to limit Brown's production in 2014. I also watched his performances against division rivals like the Ravens and the Bengals to see if Brown has any favorite routes (yes he does) and how he uses those routes to win.
First, it's important to note that Brown wins at every level of the field. The Steelers use him on screens, they use him out of the backfield, they use him on low crossers, they use him on intermediate hitches and outs, and then they send him deep. Defending Brown isn't a simple task because he does everything.
And when you pair Brown's natural talent with Ben Roethlisberger's ability to extend a play, then Brown can freestyle and Roethlisberger will look to him every time. This is why the Patriots defensive front will be so important in this match-up: New England can't afford to let the Steelers extend the play.
Roethlisberger looks to Brown at least ten times per game and there's a pretty consistent game plan.
1. Shallow crossing. Brown will line up wide and the slot receiver and near tight end will drive up the field to clear away the linebackers, opening up a lane for Brown to cross the field. This happens a couple times every game. He's a natural punt returner, so Roethlisberger just has to dump the ball off and Brown will do the rest since he'll beat the linebacker in the open field every single time. Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins will have to give Brown the Megatron treatment (legal chucking) to make the Steelers think twice about running across the middle.
2. Screen games. The Steelers will stack Brown with another receiver to the outside and Roethlisberger will throw the quick screen. This also happens a couple times every gam. A little Brandon Browner-esque jam on the stacked receiver would help the Patriots defender make the stop, but solid tackling is imperative to limit Brown's impact. If the defender misreads the play, or misses the tackle, Brown will reach the first down markers every time.
3. Leak formations in rushing situations. The Steelers will bunch all of their offensive personnel to show a run play, and then Brown will leak outside while the opposing defenders are grouped in the middle of the field.
It's hard to defend and will take a driving defensive back to take advantage of a possible pick-six opportunity.
4. Intermediate hitch, curl, out, backshoulder routes. The way that Brown attacks these intermediate routes is much much the same, and that's what makes him so dangerous. This is the bread-and-butter of the Roethlisberger-to-Brown connection. He drives down the field, forcing the defensive back to turn their hips to run with him. He then puts his hand on the near hip of the defender to push him away from the pass. Here's the result against Joe Haden:
Brown uses the defender's momentum against them and drives them away from the ball. He uses this technique all the time on hitch routes just beyond the sticks and is fairly automatic for a first down. Malcolm Butler is known for his recovery ability and he'll need it in order to prevent Brown's savvy play from moving the chains.
The Patriots could and should cheat one of their safeties over towards Brown to allows for the cornerback to take greater liberties at attacking the ball, with the safety protecting in case the corner misses. If the Patriots defend like in 2011, where they used their corners to defend the big play, but allow passes underneath, the Steelers are going to walk down the field. Hopefully Devin McCourty at free safety will deter some big pass attempts.
5. Deep routes. Of course, what makes Brown so dangerous is that he's a threat in the deep half the of the field. Defenders get so caught up on stopping the intermediate passes, that Brown's head fakes and stutter steps are able to draw the corners off balance, allowing Brown to drive down the field, behind the defender. The Patriots safeties can't make any mistakes, or else Brown will find himself in the end zone.
Butler seems like the ideal player to cover Brown because he's better at closing on the ball than any other defensive back on the roster. With Brown's route running so reliant on generating separation at the stem of his route, the Patriots need a player who can react and compensate for Brown's great ability.
The Patriots second-year corner will have to accept that Brown is going to be a major target of the Steelers offense. If Pittsburgh ignores Brown due to the Patriots focus, then New England wins the game. Butler has to trust that his linebackers and his safeties can do their job by getting in passing lanes or by protecting over the top, so that the cornerback can drive fearlessly to the catch point. If Butler doesn't try to obstruct the catch point, Brown is coming down with the catch every time.