Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees talks about Steelers players and big plays. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)
The decision seems like an obvious one. Jimmy Smith is the Ravens top cornerback and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown is arguably the NFL's top receiver. If you are Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, why wouldn't you want Smith following Brown on every play Sunday?
"It's just easy for everybody to say, 'You put this guy on that guy.' There are so many things that come into account," Pees said. "Is it really a good matchup? Does your best corner or defensive back match up against their best receiver's style? The second thing is where do they put their receiver. Is he a guy that moves all over the place? Is he a guy that's always in one spot? … There's a lot more to it than easily stating, 'Let's put our best [defensive back] against their best receiver."
Unlike many other teams, the Ravens have had modest success over the years in at least containing the prolific Brown, who has averaged 125 catches and more than 10 touchdown receptions over the past three seasons and is on pace for a 110-catch, 1,353-yard campaign this year. The Ravens' ability to beat the Steelers on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium and break a four-game losing streak will hinge partly on the that trend continuing.
In 13 career matchups against the Ravens, including two playoff games, Brown has averaged five catches and 65.5 receiving yards, and he has just one total touchdown. The Ravens have employed a variety of defensive looks against Brown and that has included having Smith, the sixth-year cornerback, following the receiver wherever he lines up.
Smith and Brown, who expressed mutual respect for each other Wednesday, both said they'd welcome that challenge, but the decision is out of their hands.
"That's not my call. It's the defensive coaching staff's call," Smith said Wednesday. "Whenever they call my name, that's where I'll play. I've matched up on him before and there are games where I haven't matched up on him. It's whatever the coaches want."
The decision on whether to deploy the top cornerback on the opposition's top receiver is viewed differently around the NFL. In 2014, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick often used his top corner, Darrelle Revis, on opponents' No. 2 wide receiver. The thinking was Revis could single-handedly eliminate one option, and the Patriots could then double-team the opponent's top guy.
Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden was widely criticized after his team's 38-16 season-opening loss to the Steelers for not having his shutdown cornerback, Josh Norman, shadow Brown. The Steelers wide receiver torched Washington for eight catches, 126 yards and two touchdowns.
Gruden has since had Norman match up with the New York Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. and the Cincinnati Bengals' A.J. Green.
"We didn't travel much with Antonio because he lined up in the backfield, he lined up in the slot and was all over the place. They were going no-huddle, so it was easier for us to be right and left," Gruden said in a conference-call with Baltimore-area reporters before his team's Oct. 9 matchup against the Ravens. "Some teams you can, some teams you can't. It does present challenges."
Many coaches and players would prefer to avoid "shadowing" the top receiver because it can cause issues on the defensive side, especially with a player such as Brown, who the Steelers move around. The cornerbacks have to react quickly to find their matchups and that often leads to confusion, and the defense being unsettled before the snap.
Also, one defensive back following a receiver everywhere tends to tip off the offense as to what coverage the defense is in.
"It's like, 'OK, every time I line a guy up there and that same DB lines up there,' they've got computers, too," Pees said. "They look at it and say, 'If that guy lines up in slot, they're in man coverage.' You have to be able to mix and match zones and man. There's a lot more to it than easily stating, 'Let's put our DB against their best receiver."
Said Smith: "If you're not in man-to-man, it kind of defeats the purpose of matching up."
Ravens veteran safety Eric Weddle said earlier this season that he prefers not having the team's corners matching up.
"You just have a lot of moving parts," he said. "It just messes you up more than it can be good. We have confidence in both of our corners and sub guys. We just game-plan; we'll play our defense and let the offense adjust off that."
This year, Smith has shadowed the Buffalo Bills' Sammy Watkins and the New York Jets' Brandon Marshall, but the Ravens did not use him throughout the game to match up with the Jacksonville Jaguars' Allen Robinson or the Oakland Raiders' Amari Cooper.
According to Pro Football Focus, Smith has given up 25 receptions for 253 yards and two touchdowns on 39 targets this year. Quarterbacks have a 99.6 rating when throwing his way.
"Obviously, he is a big, long, rangy guy," Brown said of Smith. "He has always been playing at a high level all the time. He is always highly competitive and always going to stick the best receiver. You have to pay a lot of respect to a guy like Jimmy for all he does and come out and compete and cover the best man on every guy's team week to week. Even in Cover 3, he presses Cover 3. That is the type of guy Jimmy is."
Smith, who is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds and plays a physical style, acknowledges that he prefers matching up with bigger receivers, such as the Jets' Marshall, who is 6-4 and 230 pounds. Marshall had only two catches for 18 yards when matched up directly with Smith two weeks ago.
At 5-10 and 181 pounds, Brown presents a different set of challenges for a bigger corner such as Smith.
"For a guy of his size, he's like one of the biggest challenges in the NFL. We know what he does. You all know. It's going to be a lot to contain him and [running back Le'Veon Bell]," Smith said. "Brandon [Marshall] is obviously a big guy who is going to go up [on] jump balls. With Antonio, his is more catch and run, catch a slant on you and take it 60. That's his game."
Smith, who obviously wouldn't reveal whether he'll be matched up against Brown on Sunday, said the coaches will typically tell him earlier in the week whether he's going to be matching up in the upcoming game. That gives him an opportunity to home in on one receiver during his film study. By now, though, there should be no secrets with Brown.
"The game plan is obviously directed towards him," Smith said. "We're doing what we're supposed to do if we keep him with minimal yards and minimal catches."
The Steelers' Antonio Brown has done some damage against the Ravens, but they've also kept him in check compared to the rest of the division. Below are Brown's numbers against the AFC North, with playoff matchups included:
Oppnent; Games; Catches; Yards; Yards per game; 100-yd games; Touchdowns;