PITTSBURGH – Xavier Rhodes won the battle against childhood buddy Antonio Brown. Or did he?
Yes, Rhodes, the Vikings’ Pro Bowl corner, shut down Brown, the Steelers’ All-Pro receiver. But Brown and his Steelers were the bigger winners because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is savvy enough to embrace the multifaceted opportunities that sprout up elsewhere when Brown preoccupies a team’s shutdown corner.
“It was awesome [facing Brown], but the game ain’t about me and him,” Rhodes said after Sunday’s 26-9 loss at Heinz Field. “The game is about the team.”
When Rhodes was on him, Brown caught three passes for 28 yards and drew a 22-yard pass interference penalty. Against the few zone looks, Brown had two more catches for 34 yards, including a 26-yard gain that came on a shallow crossing route against a busted coverage that left Brown uncovered.
Brown was targeted a game-high 11 times, not including the pass interference penalty, but caught only five balls, for 62 yards. A week earlier at Cleveland, he was targeted 11 times and caught everything for 182 yards.
“The Steelers really don’t worry about a matchup situation,” former Buccaneers cornerback and current Fox analyst Ronde Barber said before calling Sunday’s game. “They figure Brown is better than anyone the other team has. If they really want to get the ball to him, they stack him at the line to free him up. Or they look to exploit other mismatches.”
The Steelers did the latter Sunday. And cashed in big-time.
Roethlisberger threw for only 243 yards, but six receivers had at least three catches. Martavis Bryant, back from last year’s season-long suspension, had three catches for 91 yards while feasting on cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Andrew Sendejo when the Vikings went to a single-high safety look.
“They gave us looks that we could take advantage of, which we did,” Roehtlisberger said. “Their safeties don’t get a lot of depth sometimes.”
Bryant had a 51-yard catch to set up a field goal, a 27-yard touchdown to open the scoring and drew a 49-yard pass interference penalty on Waynes to set up a touchdown for a 14-0 lead.
The Steelers also used Bryant and Brown as decoys on rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 4-yard shovel pass for a touchdown. Lined up to the right, Brown and Bryant released to the right, drawing so much attention that Smith-Schuster scored easily.
When the Steelers led 20-9 through three quarters, Brown had only three catches for 28 yards. A pair of 8-yard catches came when a stacked receiver set freed Brown up for quick throws. The other catch was a well-contested 12-yard sideline grab that was ruled out of bounds before replay overturned it.
An unofficial press box tally had Rhodes shadowing Brown for all but 15 snaps. Rhodes sat out two snaps in the first half and an entire nine-play series in the second half to rest a hip injury he’s dealing with, he said.
Terence Newman had a nice pass defense on Brown but also was called for defensive holding on third-and-2 while shadowing Brown on the series Rhodes missed.
Roethlisberger still tried to feed Brown deep. After Rhodes’ 22-yard pass interference penalty, Roethlisberger threw two more deep balls to Brown on consecutive plays in the first half. Rhodes had excellent coverage with no help behind him.
“Just playing ball,” Rhodes said. “I think some people are just intimidated by [Brown’s] name and the plays he makes. I just went in confident in my game and confident in what I do. Just go out there and be physical and play my game. Not be distracted by anything.”
Rhodes was asked if it’s hard shadowing a guy while plays are being made elsewhere.
“You’re trying to anger me right now,” he said with a smile. “Trying to put me in the corner. It’s a team thing. We all have to do good. We were penalized [11 times]. That killed us, so, no, I’m not happy about anything. We lost.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL