Kevin Gorman: Steelers corners ready for new challenge of stopping Bengals receivers
Joe Haden gets up for going against the NFL’s best wide receivers, so the Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback always looked forward to facing Cincinnati Bengals star A.J. Green.
“I feel like he was one of the top-5 receivers in the league since he came in,” said Haden, who spent his first seven seasons in the AFC North with the Cleveland Browns. “You had to step up because he was going to make you look bad if you didn’t. I felt like I had to step up to the challenge.”
Green has 88 catches for 1,178 yards and eight touchdowns in 14 career games against the Steelers, so his being sidelined by an ankle injury is a major blow for the Bengals.
If you think Haden is relieved Green won’t play against the Steelers on Monday Night Football at Heinz Field, guess again. Where Green was always trouble, Bengals receivers Tyler Boyd and John Ross have the Steelers seeing double.
“They’re still without A.J. Green, but they were without A.J. Green a year ago,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “and I really think that Tyler Boyd has done an awesome job of settling into his role as the lead-dog type of guy.
“I’m seeing some growth and development big-time in terms of productivity from John Ross. … Man, he’s off to a fast start, providing splash plays for them and displaying some of the skills that made him a first-round pick. His top-end speed is unique, and you see that on tape.”
A Clairton and Pitt product, Boyd caught the winning touchdown in the season finale to knock the Baltimore Ravens out of the playoffs in 2017, and then became Andy Dalton’s primary target last season while Green was out down the stretch.
Boyd had 76 catches for 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns, and 58.1% of his money-down catches (third and fourth downs) were for either a first down or a touchdown.
“Andy feels very comfortable with him,” Haden said of Boyd, who ranks fourth in the league with 24 catches for 250 yards. “He’s more of a third-down guy. The targets go way up on third down to him. He keeps the chains moving.”
But Ross is more dangerous, even if it took him longer to reach top speed. He set an NFL Scouting Combine record with a 4.22-second 40-yard dash, but his career got off to a slow start.
Ross didn’t have any catches as a rookie and looked like a bust, but he had 21 receptions for 210 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Now, Ross ranks third in the NFL in receiving yards (292) and yards per catch (22.5) and is tied for fourth in touchdowns (three), on only 13 catches.
What the Steelers don’t want to see is the back of Ross’ jersey. He had touchdowns of 66 yards against San Francisco, and 55 and 33 yards against Seattle. Catching Ross from behind isn’t an option for Haden and fellow cornerback Steve Nelson.
“You can’t,” Nelson said. “He’s unstoppable. He’s super fast. You’re just praying to God every play. That’s all you can do.”
Perhaps that’s a bit of gamesmanship from Nelson, who has no shortage of confidence. But it shows Haden and Nelson know there is pressure to show they are worth the investment the Steelers made to lock up their lockdown corners. Nelson signed a three-year, $25.5-million free-agent deal this offseason, and Haden a three-year, $32-million extension earlier this month.
While the Steelers corners look forward to the challenge of containing Boyd and Ross, they know facing the Bengals twice this season means there is more potential for big plays when Green returns. What they want to avoid is allowing one before a national television audience Monday.
“Everybody can embarrass you and put you on ESPN,” Nelson said. “You’ve got to play harder every chance you get against those guys. You don’t want to be the guy they pick on.”
That’s why Haden has changed up his pregame planning this week. Where he used to focus entirely on covering Green, he is studying where Boyd and Ross like the ball to be thrown, checking their targets and following their route trees.
“It’s a little different because A.J. can get it first, second, third or fourth down, it doesn’t really matter,” Haden said. “I feel like the other guys have more roles. Boyd is a third-down guy and Ross is more of a deep-threat guy where A.J. can do it all.
“Now, it’s about watching other receivers when it used to be just watching A.J.”
The Steelers corners know they better step up because the Bengals receivers can still make them look bad if they don’t. That’s the new challenge.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .