- In all likelihood, the stud receiver (not Le’Veon Bell) will be Bill Belichick’s No. 1 priority on Sunday. Here’s how the Patriots will most likely try to contain him
The first thing you look for on Steelers film is how the opponent is defending Antonio Brown. The Steelers know it can’t be done with just one man, and so they often put Brown alone on the formation’s weak side. Ben Roethlisberger knows Brown will almost certainly attract some form of Cover 2 over there, leaving only so many coverages available on the other side. Brown’s alignment has a way of unmasking the defense.
When watching Patriots film, the first thing you look for is how they’re using their cornerbacks. It changes week to week, and like with Brown, it too tells the scheme’s story.
How the Patriots cover Brown will be the biggest factor in this Sunday’s battle for top billing in the AFC. Bill Belichick’s gameplans famously center around eliminating the opponent’s greatest weapon. We could have a smart, hearty debate about whether that would be Brown or Le’Veon Bell; because both set the bar at their positions, it’s essentially a philosophical debate over which is more important, wide receiver or running back?
But for Belichick, there is no debate—Brown is Enemy No. 1. The reason is this: if Bell beats the Patriots, it will likely be over the course of many snaps: an eight-yard run here, a 17-yard catch there, etc. Bell certainly has home run power, but as a running back, his yardage inherently comes in smaller chunks. Brown, on the other hand, can beat you in one fell swoop. Nothing harms a defense more than giving up big plays.
So how will the Patriots try to contain Brown? (And contain is the best anyone can do against him.) It starts with Malcolm Butler. Most matchup corners are bigger, physical men who are built to take away bigger, physical receivers. Butler is one of the rare few who travels with quicker, shiftier receivers. And that’s what he’s done with Brown in the past. In Week 1 of the 2015 season, Butler, fresh off the Super Bowl XLIX-clinching interception that catapulted him from obscurity to stardom, traveled with Brown, at times in the purest of forms, true solo man coverage. There were even cases when, with Brown aligned near the sideline, Butler played iso-man coverage out of zone call, using the boundary as help. Brown finished with nine catches and 133 yards that night, but the production was hard-earned and Butler won on several critical snaps. The Patriots won the game 28-21.
In two meetings last season, Butler continued to shadow Brown, only this time he got steady safety help. The Patriots played a lot of two-deep coverage during the middle of the 2016 season, and the Steelers didn’t present imposing weapons opposite Brown (Martavis Bryant was suspended; JuJu Smith-Schuster was a USC Trojan). When the Patriots hosted the Steelers in the AFC title game a few months later, the double-teams continued, especially in the red zone.
Expect that pattern to hold again Sunday, even with Bryant and Smith-Schuster in the picture. It’s always precarious to predict what Belichick will do, and some within the NFL have suggested that Stephon Gilmore, the pricey free agent corner who was signed to replace Butler (a free-agent-to-be after this season) as the long-term No. 1 corner in New England, could get Brown duties. Gilmore, at 6-feet, 190 pounds, isn’t as quick as Butler, but he’s longer and stronger. If there’s safety help over the top, the difference in quickness becomes less important.
But what’s so often overlooked about Butler is that he is physical, too. Plus, Gilmore has the body to match up to the 6' 4", 210-pound Bryant one-on-one. Butler, at 5' 11", 180, does not. With Gilmore handling Bryant alone, you have more freedom in applying the double-teaming safety against Brown. Most likely, it will be Duron Harmon, who always plays deep, leaving options for how to deploy Devin McCourty, New England’s most versatile cover safety. This season in man coverage, McCourty has often been a robber (i.e. the free defender in the shallower middle of the field), but there were times in last year’s AFC championship game when he matched directly to Le’Veon Bell.
All of these coverage scenarios are consistent with New England’s overarching defensive philosophy, which is bend- don’t-break. We don’t think of the Patriots in these terms because in the early 2000s, when Belichick was first ascending to legendary status, he ran an uncommonly diverse and complex defense. That was because he had an unparalleled array of savvy veterans—guys like Tedy Bruschi, Lawyer Milloy, Ted Johnson, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Ty Law, etc. Over the last 10 years, Belichick’s Patriots have been more about sound fundamentals and traditional, time-tested coverages. Will you still see schematic wrinkles? Of course, especially when the offense gets near field goal range. But in the aggregate, the Patriots force you to beat them slowly, again and again, without making the mistakes that beat yourself. Their plan this Sunday will center around not letting the NFL’s best wide receiver beat them quickly.
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