Washington gave cornerback Josh Norman $50 million in guarantees, money befitting one of the game’s few shutdown corners. But Monday night, it apparently was too much to expect the ‘Skins to use him to try to shut down the Steelers’ Antonio Brown, who only happens to be one of the game’s best receivers.
Brown caught eight passes on 11 targets for 126 yards and two touchdowns in the Steelers’ blowout win. Seven of those catches came with Bashaud Breeland, Washington’s other corner, escorting him up and down the field, compared to zero completions and two attempts defended when covered by Norman. Five of Brown’s receptions went for 16 yards or more. And five came on third or fourth down, though only two of those were in obvious passing situations.
Norman, meanwhile, was frequently on the opposite side guarding one of the Steelers’ other two wideouts, who came into the game with one career catch combined. Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Joe Barry presumably understood that Norman had made his bones in Carolina by tracking the opponent’s best receiver. So naturally the ‘Skins had Norman play strictly on the left side of the field Monday night. Brilliant move.
Breeland is a pretty good player. But after a while, it was obvious he needed some kind of help. Gruden did his best to explain why the ‘Skins left him stranded on an island to keep chasing Brown:
“I think Breeland has done such a good job in training camp, and Breeland is one of our corners. [Breeland’s] a good corner, and he got beat by a great player today and some great passes that I don’t know what corner can defend. I’m not going to lose faith in Breeland, but there could be merit to that later on down the road.”
Gruden was sticking to the script—articulated in the run-up to the game by Barry—that it would have been too much to have Norman shadow Brown because of how much the Steelers like to move Brown around. But it didn’t take long for the Steelers to figure out it was best to just line Brown up on the opposite side from Norman. Hey, at least the ‘Skins held Eli Rogers without a catch in the second half!
In today’s NFL, with more and more teams frequently utilizing sets of three or more wideouts, even on rushing downs, it’s not uncommon to see receivers lining up all over the field. And, look, Brown was likely to do damage no matter who he was matched up against; he’s been held to fewer than five catches just twice since 2012, and last year he even embarrassed Denver’s Chris Harris Jr.
But why didn’t Washington make some kind of adjustment to stop Brown? At one point, when play-by-play guy Sean McDonough asked that of color man Jon Gruden—Jay’s brother—he got this reply: “There’s so many different formations; it affects everybody in the secondary, Sean. It’s easier said than done.”
Norman, for his part, bit his tongue:
“No, man. Like I said, our faith is trusting coach [defensive coordinator Joe] Barry, [secondary] coach Perry Fewell,” said Norman when asked about shadowing Brown. “That’s why the guys brought me here. Faith in me to do my job and not question one thing in the game plan.”
The ‘Skins defense of their NFC East title is really off to a great start.