The notion of making sure that a team’s best asset is not the thing that beats you is a time-tested strategy employed by some of the greatest football minds in history, including the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick. To some degree, I’m sure, every coach does it in certain moments.
On Sunday, Denver Broncos Head Coach Vance Joseph’s plan was clear: don’t let Antonio Brown beat you. It must have worked, since Brown failed to catch a touchdown for the first time in nine games, and the Pittsburgh Steelers failed to win for the first time in seven games.
Only sometimes when you focus on taking away one thing, another comes up and gets you. That’s what JuJu Smith-Schuster did, posting a 13-catch, 189-yard, one-touchdown game that included a 97-yard touchdown, his second in as many seasons. But for Joseph and the Broncos, it was all collateral damage.
He talked about the plan that his defense had going into the game, calling it “huge” to limit Brown to just 67 yards on nine receptions. “Our gameplan was to not let Antonio Brown” beat them”, he said. He knew Smith-Schuster “was going to make some plays obviously, but the plan was not to let 84 beat us”.
In case you might not remember, Joseph served as the defensive backs coach of the Cincinnati Bengals for two seasons in 2014 and 2015. “I’ve been in games where he’s beaten me single-handedly”, he recalled.
“The plan was to take him away, to stop the run game the best we could with a seven-man box and just deal with 19 the best we could”, the head coach continued to explain. “It worked, except for a 97-yard play we gave up to 19. I think Antonio, the longest catch he had was 14 yards. It worked, and we came away with a victory”.
I do understand what Joseph is saying, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s actually true. Smith-Schuster has already accomplished quite a bit over the course of his first 24 games, and already has over 1000 receiving yards on the season, leading the team in that category and in receptions as well. He has shown that he can win games, too.
The Steelers didn’t lose because they weren’t getting the ball to Brown more often in better situations. Ryan Switzer was able to step up as a third target and had a nice game, for example. Ben Roethlisberger did end up throwing for over 450 yards, after all.
They lost because they turned the ball over four times and didn’t get any of them back. It will always help when you can take Brown out of the equation—similar to how the Steelers were largely able to neutralize Von Miller despite a right tackle making his first career start as a rookie—but this is an offense that left a lot of points on the board. 10 at a minimum, if not more.