Coaches rarely offer even the subtlest of hints about their gameplans, but during a meeting with reporters in his office earlier this week, Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther offered the verbal equivalent of taking a red marker to the white board and circling Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown.
“He’s public enemy No. 1 on their offense for us,” Guenther said.
Brown finished second in the league with 1,834 yards and tied for first with 136 receptions, which, coupled with last year’s total of 129 made him the first NFL receiver to catch at least 125 passes in back-to-back seasons.
But while the Bengals have not been able to eliminate Brown in their first two meetings, they have done a solid job of limiting him. He had 47 yards in the first meeting — a 16-10 Cincinnati win in Pittsburgh on Nov. 1 — and 28 of them came on the opening drive.
In the second game, a 33-20 Steelers win in Cincinnati on Dec. 13, the Bengals were without top cornerback Adam Jones due to a foot injury but still held Brown to 87 yards, well below his season average.
“We’ve done a good job of mixing some of the coverages up on the guy, making sure we’re getting him up at the line of scrimmage,” Guenther said. “Too many teams I see on tape are giving him too much free access where he can just go out and run and make his cut and come out of the break. And he and (Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) have such a good relationship that the ball’s going to get completed most of the time.
“So we’ve got to do a good job of disrupting him out of his routes and not giving him free access up the field.”
That access up the field is something the Bengals have worked hard to eliminate no matter the opponent, but especially the Steelers. In two games against the Bengals, Roethlisberger has averaged 9.4 yards per completion, with a long of 31. In his other 10 games, he’s averaging more than 13 yards per completion with 23 plays longer than 31 yards.
“Obviously they’re a very explosive offense,” Guenther said of the Steelers, who ranked third in the league in total offense and passing offense.
Limiting the explosions is the most critical part of the assignment, defensive backs coach Vance Joseph said.
“It won’t come down to whether we can force four, five turnovers. It’s going to come down to not giving up big plays,” he said. “If you set out to try to trap Ben or force turnovers, you may give up a big play. We just have to be rightly positioned, and when the ball goes up, we’ve got to be top down.”
It’s something the Bengals have done well most of the season. After giving up six pass plays longer than 30 yards in the first five weeks, they’ve given up four in the 11 games since.
“Most definitely that was a focus,” said safety Reggie Nelson, whose NFL-leading eight interceptions thwarted a number of deep shots by opponents.
“Getting hit for 80 is way different than playing hard and them trickling down the field,” safety George Iloka said. “Both are bad, but the deep ball just sucks the life out of you.”
Two of the three longest receptions of Brown’s career — a 60-yard touchdown in 2012 and a 63-yard score in 2014 — have come against the Bengals. Teammate Martavis Bryant’s longest career reception — a 94-yard touchdown – also victimized the Bengals.
But Guenther’s defense has been able to stay behind the Pittsburgh receivers in the two meetings this season, and doing so again Saturday night could be the difference in whether the Bengals end or extend their 25-year playoff drought.
“The key is not to give up big plays,” Joseph said. “That’s always the key versus Pittsburgh — make them earn, make them drive, win the red-zone plays, win the third downs. Critical football is the key.”