Considering how much it was talked about, the matchup between Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and Cleveland Browns rookie fourth-overall cornerback Denzel Ward didn’t feature many rounds.
In part because Brown spent most of the first half playing on the left side of the field (Ward did not switch sides), most of the matchups between the two were reserved for the second half, and the first real round of note clearly went in favor of the veteran.
That wasn’t because Ward did anything particularly bad on the play. But an excellent play by a player like Brown will beat good coverage pretty regularly, and that’s what we saw on this 22-yard touchdown in the middle of the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, late in the game, with the Steelers facing a short-yardage situation, the rookie cornerback did a great job to get Brown on the ground as soon as possible, limiting him to a gain of just one yard.
The bulk of the most tense matchups were actually reserved for overtime. With under five minutes to go and the Steelers on their own 45, looking to get into field goal range, Ben Roethlisberger looked for his most trusted target, but his ball placement allowed the rookie cornerback to make the adjustment and swat the ball away for an incompletion.
Still, the veteran pairing did come back on the following play to connect on a 12-yadr hookup, winning on a quick slant. Brown took a hard tackle over the middle of the field from Brien Boddy-Calhoun, but seemed no worse for the wear.
With 1:17 to play, beginning the Steelers’ final full possession, Brown had Ward against him in press coverage, but the offense was able to pick the cornerback with James Conner lined up inside. That allowed Brown to get free over the middle for a 12-yard gain.
Ward did have two interceptions in the game, but neither of them were with him covering Brown, nor was he even the target of those throws. On the first interception, when Brown was actually targeted, the rookie was covering the flat zone occupied by Ryan Switzer. The second was a gift off the hands of Jesse James.
Still, that’s not to diminish the solid performance from Ward, who certainly looks as though he can develop into a player the Steelers are going to have to deal with for years to come. The Cincinnati Bengals also seem to have one of those in William Jackson III.