PITTSBURGH – For a moment, hope felt like the appropriate reaction. A pair of rookies looked up at the big video screen behind the end zone at Heinz Field, checking to see whether a couple inches – or maybe just one inch – would bail them out.
It is hard to determine what more safety Josh Jones and cornerback Kevin King could have done. The pair of Green Bay Packers rookies didn’t have bad coverage on Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. So close was Jones, he could reach out and brush the All-Pro wideout near the Steelers' sideline.
That’s where Brown corralled quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s 23-yard fling – the football actually traveled 34 yards in the air – with 13 seconds left Sunday night. Off his back foot, Roethlisberger dropped his pass into a window only a few NFL quarterbacks, the Packers' injured MVP Aaron Rodgers among them, might dare.
Brown did the rest, planting his left foot with barely a sliver of green grass between his toes and the sideline, and dragging his right cleat to make the catch irrefutable.
“I wasn’t sure if he got in or not,” King said.
“I felt like it was (out of bounds),” Jones said.
The Steelers knew better.
They see Brown make catches like this most weeks. “You should see some of the catches he does in practice,” running back Le’Veon Bell said. This was one of the NFL’s best receivers not at his finest, but at his normal.
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Brown’s razor-thin reception set up Steelers kicker Chris Boswell’s 53-yard field goal, giving the Packers a 31-28 loss that was much closer than expected, making it all the more brutal to digest. It was the kind of loss, and the kind of game-changing play, the Packers have handed opponents so many times with Rodgers at quarterback.
The Packers outplayed the Steelers in aspects that usually lend to victory – none clearer than forcing three turnovers without a single giveaway – only to have it undone by a couple clutch plays – and that one inch – at the end.
“I’m not surprised or amazed,” Roethlisberger said of Brown’s catch. “It’s what he does. He’s just special. … He’s the best in the world on the sideline. So if it’s even close, I’m not betting against him.”
For a pair of rookies, Sunday’s final 17 seconds offered invaluable on-the-job training. The lesson: what to expect from an elite receiver in crunch time.
There was still more football to play after Brown’s sideline tap dance. From the Packers’ 47-yard line, the Steelers needed to move closer for Boswell. King, lined up across Brown, didn’t have to guess what was coming.
The rookie knew Roethlisberger would throw in his direction again.
Brown ran a simple out route for 14 yards, backpedaling out of bounds with 0:09 on the clock. In two plays using only eight seconds, the Steelers advanced 37 yards to get in position for a game-winning field goal.
“I don’t know what we could’ve done differently,” veteran corner Davon House said. “The guy just made some good catches. We were in position. The guy just made the plays.
“All the catches he had were contested catches, were tough catches. He just made them.”
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At the end, the Packers had the corner they wanted matched against Brown.
They prioritized building their secondary this offseason, drafting King and Jones with their first two picks. The Packers could have selected Steelers rookie T.J. Watt, the former Badger whose clutch sack killed a potential game-winning drive, but instead targeted the back end of their pass defense.
As the calendar flips to December, it’s uncertain the Packers are any closer to finding a No. 1 corner to match elite receivers. What’s painfully clear is their secondary lacks that cover man in the present. Brown feasted on the Packers' defensive backs, catching 10 of the 12 passes thrown to him for 169 yards and two touchdowns.
The Packers held Bell under 100 yards – never easy against the NFL’s rushing leader entering Sunday – but couldn’t stop Brown from going off.
“It’s like that going against the top guys,” King said. “You’re not going to shut them out. You’re not going to hold them to zero catches, and zero yards. You know that. Especially when he gets 15 targets a game. You’re going to get work, and he’s going to make catches.
“As a corner, that’s inevitable. You can’t get away from that. You can’t get away from him making them plays, or even making big plays. That’s going to happen.”
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King had a sore left shoulder, forcing him to miss most of the second quarter and part of the third when a bolt keeping a harness in place busted loose. He could’ve had a bruised ego, too. This was a tough loss for anyone to swallow, much less a rookie.
But King wasn’t conceding a thing after the game.
“I will be a No. 1 corner,” he said.
King knows these were the moments a No. 1 corner must shine. How he responds from failure against the NFL’s elite might go a long way toward knowing whether he will be.