For this week’s look at receiver/matchup nightmare Antonio Brown and the Pittsburgh Steelers, I turned to a guy who knows a thing or two about covering receivers at a Hall of Fame-caliber level.
Former Buc Ronde Barber, who will call the game as an analyst for Fox, played corner for 16 NFL seasons. He’s probably the best Cover-2 corner that’s ever played, and very well could be entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility come February.
Q: So, Ronde, how will the Vikings cover Brown?
“The good thing about the Vikings is I think Trae Waynes is coming into his own a little bit, so I could see some situations where the corners stay on the sides they’re comfortable with and deal with it,” Barber said. “Xavier [Rhodes] has shown he can follow a receiver, but I don’t know how well that can work in this case. Antonio is such a hard cover because when they feel like he’s going to get singled up like that, they’ll just change the formation and put him in stacks and not allow that big corner to get his hands on him. And once he uses those stacks to get in space, he’s very dangerous.”
When asked Wednesday if he’s expecting Rhodes to shadow Brown, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin seemed totally unconcerned about the matchup.
“I’m sure they’ll put somebody on him,” Tomlin shrugged.
Last week, Brown had 11 catches for 182 of the Steelers’ 290 yards in a 21-18 win at Cleveland.
“The way their offense works, it’s almost like they want you to match him up with one guy,” Barber said. “They feel their guy is better than any guy on the other team, and he might be. I know that Xavier has come a long way, especially last year. But I think Antonio is a tough matchup for anybody because of the complete understanding he has with Ben Roethlisberger.”
Q: What other matchups should concern the Vikings?
Barber doesn’t expect running back Le’Veon Bell to continue struggling like he did against the Browns (10 carries, 32 yards). But he also said Vikings have a “great front” and that DTs Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson are “as solid a duo as there is inside in football.”
“This is one of the best offenses in the league against one of the best defenses, so it will be fun to watch,” Barber said. “The Steelers still have options on offense other than Brown and Bell.”
Tight end Jesse James caught two touchdown passes. But Barber said to look out for receiver Martavis Bryant, who caught only two balls for 14 yards in his first game back after being suspended for all of last season. Bryant is 6-4 and 211 pounds of arms and legs.
“Martavis is a matchup problem if Xavier goes to Brown all day,” Barber said. “He can go up over anybody. He can go up over Trae.”
Q: Offensively, what should concern the Vikings?
“You know Pittsburgh,” Barber said. “[Defensive coordinator] Keith Butler is going to blitz. Put them under pressure, use the crowd and try to make them do what they don’t want to do.
“The pressure is going to be on that offensive line. I don’t know if [left outside linebacker] Bud Dupree is going to play, but [Anthony] Chickillo played great last week. And the rookie on the other side, T.J. Watt, is a strong, competitive dude who is good at everything. [Vikings left tackle] Riley Reiff has his hands full this week. His job will be exponentially more difficult than playing the Saints at home.”
Last week, Watt became the first rookie in Steelers history to have two sacks and an interception in his debut.
“He’s an effort guy,” Barber said. “When I watch the film, there’s nothing that tells me, ‘Man, this guy is a great athlete.’ But what he is is he’s great with his hands, he’s strong and he’s going to work.”
Q: What about the Vikings’ offense?
The Steelers aren’t the Saints. Then again, the Vikings aren’t the Browns, who had a 21-year-old rookie quarterback making his NFL debut.
Pittsburgh won by three points, but scored only 14 points offensively. The Steelers were sloppy with 13 penalties for 143 yards, including five holding penalties and four personal fouls.
“[Vikings offensive coordinator] Pat Shurmur is West Coast to a tee,” Barber said. “It’s West Coast 2.0. It’s advanced West Coast stuff. A lot of motions, a lot of sets, he doesn’t give you a lot of time to see what you’re getting into.
“And then, conceptually, you got a quarterback who can read the defense. When you see Sam [Bradford] drop back, you see him reading the coverages. And he makes quick decisions and gets rid of the football. That’s why his accuracy numbers are so high. He sees the game the way you want in your quarterback. And he’s got a big tight end, two very good receivers and obviously the runner [Dalvin Cook] is pretty legit.”
The Vikings are 6 1/2-point underdogs. If they handle their matchup challenges, they could reach 2-0 with four of the next five games at U.S. Bank Stadium.