This week's player to watch, receiver Antonio Brown, has easily been the Pittsburgh Steelers' most electric player this season. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been under duress thanks to poor pass protection and running back Le'Veon Bell has been ineffective after a preseason ankle injury got his professional career off to a rocky start. The defensive side of the ball has been similarly devoid of big plays with only 7 total takeaways and 16 sacks.
However, things have been trending up in the Steel City with three wins in the past five games. Part of the reason the Steelers are still in the playoff hunt is thanks to the playmaking ability of Brown. Steelers fans have criticized Brown's penchant for avoiding contact at the expense of extra yards and for calling too many fair catches on punts, but the fourth-year receiver is having a breakout year. Through nine games, Brown is only 2 receptions short of his career high and has surpassed his yardage total from 2012. His 805 receiving yards are good for fifth best in the league and his 270 yards after the catch are 10th among wide receivers.
The one thing lacking from Brown's stat sheet is touchdowns. He only has 3 on the year and only has 10 in his career. He is an electric playmaker but does not find the end zone very often. Part of the reason is that Roethlisberger has several options to choose from. Jerricho Cotchery has come alive in the last two games with 4 touchdowns, giving him a total of 6 on the season, and Brown's 5'10 frame is not a tempting red zone target.
Lions cornerback Chris Houston's play has been fairly erratic all season and nowhere near where the Detroit Lions want their "shutdown corner" to be. In the past three weeks, opponents' No. 1 receivers have combined for 366 yards and 5 touchdowns. Houston is not completely responsible for that stat line thanks to zones and defensive switches, but it provides a pretty good indication of where he is right now. Brown also works out of the slot a ton, so Rashean Mathis or, God help us, Darius Slay may line up opposite of him as well.
Regardless, three things need to happen to stifle Brown and the Steelers' offense. First, the defensive line needs to get pressure. This shouldn't be hard to do given their talent level and Pittsburgh's troubles protecting Roethlisberger.
Second, the back seven has to limit yards after the catch with sound tackling. Defending against screens and slants hasn't been too much of an issue so far this year, and linebacker DeAndre Levy has made blowing up screens his calling card.
Finally, the safeties cannot let anyone behind them. Brown, as well as fellow burner Emmanuel Sanders and veteran Jerricho Cotchery, make a living on the deep ball. Each of the three is averaging over 12 yards per catch and the Steelers have combined for 39 passing plays of more than 20 yards.
The Steelers are not flush with offensive talent, but Brown is a dynamic player. He has not shown the ability to take over games like Calvin Johnson thus far in his young career, but he is dangerous if the defense gives up any free space. The Steelers will have to rely on their passing game, as their running game has been terrible and the Lions run defense has dominated the last few weeks. Limiting Brown will go a long way toward getting a win in Pittsburgh.