A few personnel thoughts that came about while watching the Pittsburgh Steelers' Saturday 34-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
Julio Jones is special … but the Steelers taught him a few things.
It doesn't take long to see why the Falcons traded so many draft picks to move up and take Alabama receiver Julio Jones. Through the preseason, he's shown every attribute that made him such a standout at the college level — his command of routes, his toughness over the middle, and his explosiveness downfield. But as it has been with so many other NCAA stars, Jones got a real education when he faced an elite NFL defense. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw to Jones 13 times, and Jones caught just five of those passes for 59 yards.
However, Jones found it tough going in Pittsburgh's advanced defense. Matt Ryan tried to get him warned up with a quick slant on Atlanta's first offensive play, but cornerback William Gay was right there to break it up. Then, pressure forced Ryan to let go too soon as Jones was completing a crossing pattern in double coverage. Jones finally got his first catch of the day with 5:58 left in the game — a quick sideline route left for 11 yards and a first down — but he faced more challenges than he had catches.
Ryan was under pressure just about all day, and the timing patterns he wanted to work with Jones weren't going to happen for the most part. There just wasn't time. Ryan had numerous deflections on short passes to either side — the Steelers seemed to have a real read on those — and those connections to Jones were affected. Jones could get seam or sideline stuff at the second level if Gay was taken off to deal with an outside receiver, but the Falcons could only take what the Steelers gave them.
Antonio Brown is the Steelers' latest vertical threat
The Steelers seem to be able to develop effective speed receivers at a cottage industry level these days. First, there was Mike Wallace, who by advanced metrics, was the most efficient receiver in the NFL last season. Then, Emmanuel Sanders. Now, coming out of the sixth round of the 2010 draft, is Central Michigan's Antonio Brown. The former MAC Special Teams Player of the year made quite a few more tracks with fewer targets than Jones had — on just five throws in his general direction, Brown caught four passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns.
Not only did Brown take those two touchdown passes, he almost took the opening kickoff to the house -- he was stopped by a horse-collar tackle from Falcons kicker Matt Bosher. As a receiver, Brown didn't show up right away — he got an incompletion and a three-yard pass to start — but he'd start blowing it up soon enough. With 8:12 left in the first half and the ball at the Pittsburgh 23, Brown was solo to the right side in a three-receiver set. He ran a simply skinny speed slant with a cut about 25 yards downfield, and just blasted by safety Thomas DeCoud after cornerback Brent Grimes lost his footing on the cut.
On the second touchdown, with 1:49 left in the first half and the ball at the Atlanta 44, Brown lined up to the left, opposite a twins right alignment by Wallace and Hines Ward. He split the coverage with a deep post while Ben Roethlisberger ran around, and ran through Grimes and cornerback Dominique Franks. Grimes, who is one of the best pure pass defenders in the game, was coming over from the other side, and it didn't help that DeCoud vacated seam responsibility to cover Ward over the middle.
Not bad for a second-year player who's down a bit on the depth chart — in the third (and generally most serious and schematically diverse) preseason game, Brown made the defense of a 13-3 team in 2010 look rather foolish. Speed kills, and the Steelers have it all over the place.