Tim Benz: Steelers think they have a plan to slow Browns’ receiving tandem
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ defenders weren’t shy about saying it.
They knew the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive plan of attack on third down.
“We knew what they were doing,” safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “They like to target certain players on third downs, and we just went out there and executed our game plan really well.”
That game plan? Take away Cooper Kupp.
“We knew on third down he was their guy they always throw to,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “We were throwing different looks at him. We were doubling him a lot.
“Whenever he was in the slot, whoever ended up on him had a safety with him. We practiced it all week.”
The strategy worked as Kupp was held without a catch on just four targets, and the Rams went 1-of-14 on third down en route to a 17-12 loss at Heinz Field.
“The plan was to take him away and let everyone else beat us,” slot corner Mike Hilton said. “I was on him the whole game. I had help. We were able to take him out of the game.”
That was great. But what if the Rams had two Cooper Kupps out there at the same time?
Because the Cleveland Browns do. And that’s who the Steelers play on the road Thursday night.
The Browns have the dangerous receiving tandem of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. The much-ballyhooed combination was formed this spring when Cleveland acquired Beckham Jr. from the New York Giants.
They haven’t quite lived up to the billing. The likes of Tampa Bay, Detroit, Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle and both Los Angeles teams can all boast a receiving twosome with more receiving yards.
But they have been good. Landry is 18th in the NFL with 652 yards. Beckham Jr. is 19th with 632.
A complicating point for the Steelers is that the two pass-catchers are interchangeable enough that Cleveland’s route combinations are flexible.
“For sure,” Haden said Monday. “They move Odell around inside or outside. They move Landry around inside or outside. Both of those dudes are gadgets guys. They both can throw. They’ll put them wherever.”
That fluidity and skill can stress a defense, even if the Browns are only 19th in the NFL when it comes to passing offense at 224 yards per game.
“From a talent standpoint, there is no tandem that approaches those guys,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Monday. “They are impactful. Both guys are the type of guys that merit the type of attention we gave to Cooper Kupp last week. But you can’t provide that for both guys and work to minimize Nick Chubb and the running game. We have to pick our poison.”
Maybe. But it sure sounds like the Steelers are going to try. When Landry lines up in the slot, I asked Hilton if the Steelers may employ the same tactics against him as they did against Kupp.
Hilton responded with a broader answer.
“We’ll probably do it with both of those guys,” Hilton said. “You’ve got two of the better receivers in the league, so you’ve got to figure out ways to take them away and make their night difficult.”
True. But to Tomlin’s point, doubling both receivers would make stopping the run a challenge. Plus, it would open the field in the passing game for a tight end, running back out of the backfield, or third receiver.
As Tomlin said, the Steelers may have to “pick their poison” when it comes to doubling one receiver or the other. Based on what Hilton said, it sounds like the Steelers have a plan there, too.
“From what we viewed on film, early downs they like to get Odell going, get him in rhythm,” Hilton said. “Third down they are going to find Landry. They usually try to get the matchup on the inside against a backer, but we have some good schemes to slow that down.”
Hilton says that usually happens with Landry coming from the slot.
“There have been a couple times when Odell has been inside. But Jarvis is the guy inside. So we’ve just got to find ways to take those guys away.”
Theory and practice are two different things. Both manifested last week as the Steelers went 13-of-14 on third-down stops.
Don’t expect that kind of success again this week. But if you do expect a win against the Browns, it better be close.