ASHBURN — Both teams have tried to downplay it. Neither player has engaged in trash talk. That will probably come later in the season for cornerback Josh Norman.
But the most exciting matchup of tonight’s season opener between the Redskins and the Pittsburgh Steelers is absolutely between Norman, the NFL’s highest paid corner, and wide receiver Antonio Brown, who tied for the league lead in catches last season. It’s the kind of theatre that makes the sport great.
“Yeah, we’re more interested in the Steelers versus the Redskins, really,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said. “He’s just a major part of their team and is somebody that will alter your game plan.”
Added Steelers coach Mike Tomlin: “We don’t care because we don’t have any control over that.”
Okay. So maybe not. But while the coaches weren’t biting during the week, the fact is Norman and Brown will see a ton of each other throughout the night. Yes, Pittsburgh will move Brown around often to get him open. And other Redskins corners, including Bashaud Breeland, will have to put in some work, too. But the Brown-Norman matchup goes a long way toward figuring who wins on Monday.
Pittsburgh is without starting running back Le’Veon Bell (suspension), tight end Ladarius Green (PUP list for concussion, ankle) and wide receiver Markus Wheaton (shoulder). DeAngelo Williams is still a dangerous running back in place of Bell. And the Steelers love second-year pro Eli Rogers as a slot receiver. But quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will need a big game from Brown to put pressure on Washington.
“I’m not going to worry about trying to beat Josh,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s one of the best in the business. Him and AB [Antonio Brown] will, I’m sure, have plenty of talking matches and jabbering back-and-forth. For me, it’s about trying to go out and just beat the Redskins.”
Roethlisberger said last week that Pittsburgh anticipates a lot of single-high safety coverages from Washington in large part because Norman can be left on his own. Of course, Brown presents a significant challenge so that might not last all night. But if Norman can handle Brown then Redskins defensive coordinator Joe Barry can get creative with safeties DeAngelo Hall, David Bruton and Duke Ihenacho.
Norman, for his part, is ready. But there was none of the underlying tension he will have later in the season with NFC East receivers Odell Beckham, Jr. or Dez Bryant. It’s all love here. At least until the game starts.
“[Brown is] a great route runner. He’s not afraid to go across the middle, and then when he does get the ball in his hands, hold your breath,” Norman said. “He can make people miss and he’s a danger, every time, anywhere. Quick screens, down the field throws, across the middle, sideline routes. There’s really nothing that you say, ‘This is his weakness.’ He doesn’t have any.”
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