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What led to A.J. Brown’s big day against the Steelers?

The Eagles wide receiver had a creer day against the Steelers’ secondary.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is rolling on. In Week 8, the Steelers defense could not keep A.J. Brown contained as he put up huge numbers. So what led to Brown’s big day? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Last Sunday, Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown torched the Steelers for 156 yards on six receptions and three touchdowns. Brown’s touchdowns came from 39 yards, 27 yards, and 29 yards.

According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), four of Brown’s receptions came against Ahkello Witherspoon on five targets for 74 yards and two of his touchdowns. Brown’s other touchdown was credited against Terrell Edmunds with one reception on one target for 39 yards. PFF also had A.J. Brown getting one reception on one target for 43 yards against Myles Jack. Brown was also targeted once going up against Cameron Sutton but did not have a reception while he was targeted twice against James Pierre with no receptions.

According to Zebra Technologies, Brown’s three touchdowns in Week 8 were all on go routes, which was the only wide receiver to do so in a single game over the last five seasons. Brown’s third touchdown, which was 29 yards and credited as going against Ahkello Witherspoon (according to PFF), only had a 24% completion probability as Brown only had 0.7 yards of separation at the time of the catch. Additionally, Brown had the third-least yards of separation in the NFL this week with only 1.7 yards yet still pulled in three touchdowns.

Brown’s three touchdown catches were the most he’s had in an NFL game in his career, as well as the most receiving yards he has had at 156. Brown has had two other games we had 155 yards receiving which was Week 1 of this year against the Detroit Lions and Week 8 of last season against the Indianapolis Colts when he was with the Tennessee Titans. In Brown’s only other game in which he appeared against the Steelers in his career, which was Week 7 of 2020 where the Steelers defeated the Titans in Tennessee 27–24, Brown had 153 yards on six receptions and a touchdown.

So what was it that gave the Steelers defense so much fits with A.J. Brown in Week 8? Let’s check the film.

The Film Line:

A.J. Brown’s second target of the game came against Cameron Sutton and shows the gameplan the Steelers had for defending A.J. Brown when they came into the game.

Steelers vs. Eagles, 1st quarter, 11:38.

A.J. Brown is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Brown’s speed and physicality are serious threats to any defense, and the Steelers were looking to keep him in front of them while avoiding getting into contests of physicality with Brown, seeking to do what Sutton did here, and defend the pass, not the receiver. Brown is not a small, shifty receiver and Sutton is able to change directions faster than Brown to win the play.

Steelers vs. Eagles, 1st quarter, 9:31.

A.J. Brown is the second receiver from the bottom of the screen.

With Minkah Fitzpatrick deep, Terrell Edmunds switches to a trail technique. Any throw needs to go over Edmunds and that will bring Minkah Fitzpatrick into the equation. That’s usually enough to deter any team from a throw like this. But Hurts throws it anyway. A.J. Brown does a great job slowing down and looking back for the ball here. That, and a little push, take Edmunds out of the play. Brown takes the ball away from Fitzpatrick and it’s a touchdown.

When Brown lined up outside the Steelers gave a big cushion and looked to jump anything short. When he was inside the Steelers bracketed him. But they didn’t look to physically impede his routes.

Steelers vs. Eagles, 2nd quarter, 12:53.

A.J. Brown is the receiver to the top of the screen.

This is a rough one. Witherspoon is tight on Brown, but he isn’t physically affecting his route at all. In fact Witherspoon doesn’t touch Brown until after the catch. Brown just runs to the spot where the ball should be, and the ball is there. You can’t just let receivers run from point A to point B in the same manner they do in training camp. Jalen Hurts has thrown this ball to A.J. Brown in shorts. You have to mess up that timing at least a little bit,

Steelers vs. Eagles, 2nd quarter, 6:20.

A.J. Brown is the receiver to the top of the screen.

The Steelers started getting into A.J. Brown’s body after his second touchdown, but the cushion gave the Eagles room to make this play. The pump fake along with the hesitation from Brown gets a reaction from the defense. Witherspoon peeks at the quarterback, and the slot corner goes to attack a throw that isn’t coming. Both the receivers to that side of the field gain a bit of advantage on the defense and Hurts throws to the one Minkah Fitzpatrick is farthest from. A.J. Brown easily wins any physical contact with Witherspoon and Fitzpatrick as well.

At this point in the game it doesn’t matter anymore, the Steelers offense hasn’t scored more than two touchdowns in any game this season so Brown’s third touchdown of the first half was more than enough points for the Eagles to win this game. But the Steelers still had to do something to try and stop A.J. Brown.

Steelers vs. Eagles, 3rd quarter, 14:54.

A.J. Brown is the receiver to the top of the screen.

The Steelers brought in James Pierre, who can’t run with Brown but can survive being physical with him, and it worked much better. Pierre didn’t win every route, but he threw off the timing of Brown’s routes and it broke up the Eagles rhythm.

Steelers vs. Eagles, 3rd quarter, 3:25.

A.J. Brown is the second receiver from the top of the screen.

Terrell Edmunds got the better of Brown on this play. With Edmunds engaging Brown instead of trailing him, he’s in position to make a play here and he breaks up the pass.

At the end of the first half Brown had caught 5 of his 8 targets for 113 yards and 3 touchdowns. In the third quarter the Steelers more physical approach saw A.J. Brown held catchless on two targets. He would catch his only target of the fourth quarter, and would not return to the game after the Eagles scored their fifth and final touchdown on the next play.

Steelers vs. Eagles, 4th quarter, 13:30.

A.J. Brown is the receiver to the top of the screen.

PFF correctly assigns this to Myles Jack. The Steelers are in a split defense, defending the trips to the bottom of the screen with a pattern matching coverage and the two receivers to the top of the screen are facing a cover-2 defense on their side. The Eagles run a nice play for facing that defense here. Notice how they work the rules of the pattern matching to keep Devin Bush’s back to the play, and clearing the area with the route combo from the trips side. To the top Myles Jack is manning the inside part of the zone. He reads and jumps the quick stop route from the slot, and misses A.J. Brown looping behind him into the wide-open middle of the field.

The Point:

Once the Steelers switched their strategy and personnel to contest A.J. Brown’s routes the Eagles only got him the ball on a blown coverage. The main point to take away from this isn’t that the Steelers messed up strategically. They could have reacted faster, but A.J. Brown is an elite athlete and James Pierre may be more physical, but he can’t run with Brown, and had the game situation been different, the Eagles might have gone after him more. The key is that the Steelers don’t have a cornerback that can run with fast receivers and also handle more physical receivers. They have a slower, zone heavy corner that can be physical, and a fast corner that struggles with physicality. That’s why Terrell Edmunds was matched up on Brown most of the times he moved inside, because he can run with almost anyone and handle physical play. But he’s not great with more advanced cornerback technique, because he’s not a cornerback.

A.J. Brown with his athleticism, technique and physicality was the perfect receiver to expose the Steelers lack of a #1 cornerback, and the Steelers were blown out in this game because of it.