Kevin Gorman: Browns receivers huge test for Steelers secondary
Mike Tomlin had no shortage of superlatives about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ challenge of facing Cleveland Browns wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
“From a talent standpoint, there’s no tandem that approaches those guys,” Tomlin said. “They’re impactful.”
And they are a tandem that’s almost identical in impact: Landry has 45 receptions for 652 yards and two touchdowns in averaging 14.5 yards a catch and 72.4 yards a game. Beckham has 44 catches for 632 yards and one touchdown in averaging 14.4 yards a catch and 70.2 yards a game for the Browns.
“They’re two No. 1 receivers,” Steelers cornerback Joe Haden said, “so we’ve got to make sure we know where they are at all times.”
But it’s more the talent than the statistics that separates the Browns duo from other receiving tandems. Landry is a four-time Pro Bowl pick, and Beckham a three-time Pro Bowler. Both are masters of making the spectacular look routine, especially when it comes to one-handed, back-shoulder catches.
That makes the Steelers’ game against the Browns on Thursday at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium the toughest challenge yet for cornerbacks Haden and Steve Nelson. They are the unsung heroes of the secondary this season, as their stellar pass coverage has been overshadowed by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick’s penchant for turnovers.
Expect Beckham and Landry to bring out their best.
“Those guys are amazing talents, so it’ll be a good challenge for us to compete with those guys,” Nelson said. “It’ll be fun. You try to reduce the big, explosive plays that those guys are capable of.”
Haden knows that’s easier said than done. The Steelers are counting on their front seven to stop running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and for their pass rushers to put pressure on quarterback Baker Mayfield so they aren’t stranded on an island.
The Steelers had mixed results against Landry last season. He had seven catches for 106 yards in the season-opening tie but only 39 yards on eight catches in the Steelers’ 33-18 win in late October. Landry, however, is coming off a strong performance against the Buffalo Bills. He had nine catches for 97 yards, including a touchdown with cornerback Levi Wallace in close quarters.
That’s the most challenging part of the coverage by Haden and Nelson, knowing that even if they stay step for step that Beckham and Landry are capable of making ridiculous catches.
Haden experienced that firsthand against Beckham three years ago in Cleveland, when Haden played for the Browns and Beckham for the New York Giants. Beckham had six catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns, beating Haden for a 32-yard score and a 41-yard pass to set up the second touchdown. Haden was slowed by groin strains in that November 2016 game but knows what Beckham can do.
“It’s very tough, but — and our coaches realize it — they get paid, too,” Haden said. “Odell isn’t making $19 million a year because he can’t do spectacular things.”
Then again, the Steelers wouldn’t have signed Haden to a three-year, $32-million contract extension or Nelson to a three-year, $25.5-million free-agent deal if they couldn’t be counted on to do spectacular things to stop receivers such as Beckham and Landry.
“Shoot, you’ve got to be acrobatic to cover those suckers,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “That’s how you combat it. You combat it with time, eliminating the time they have to get the ball downfield and athletic guys covering them. That’s what we have.”
Nelson ranks in the NFL’s top five in advanced coverage analytics — second in coverage snaps per reception (17.8), third in per target (9.7) and fifth in yards per coverage snap (0.74) — and gives Haden credit for helping his career year.
Even though Nelson won’t share their secrets.
“Joe’s been doing it at a high level for a long time, and I’m fortunate to learn from him and just pick his brain,” Nelson said. “It’s fun playing with him. He’s helped me a lot.”
Haden helped himself against the Rams, putting up his best performance of the season with seven tackles, five pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble.
“I like our receivers, but their corners do a good job of playing the ball, playing the receiver, studying and knowing the routes, knowing what to do off of ‘em,” Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said. “They compete on every snap, and we’ve got a tough challenge out there, as well.”
It should be spectacular.
May the most talented tandem win.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .