The Dallas Cowboys' secondary has already been tested by four of the top wide receivers the NFL has to offer, and they've left each matchup with little damage to show for it.
For as unpredictable and exciting of a season as it's been thus far, that might be the biggest surprise the Cowboys have offered up. There were a lot of questions facing the Cowboys' defensive backs coming into the year, and so far they've answered everyone quietly and effectively.
When they visit Pittsburgh this Sunday, Antonio Brown will be waiting for them. If they manage to keep him in check then it might be time to start bringing up the Cowboys when talking about the best passing defenses in the league.
It hasn't been flashy, and according to safety J.J. Wilcox there's no secret formula that has made the difference. "[It's] just communication, understanding each other, being on the same note, and limiting mistakes and errors."
Incredibly, the Cowboys have yet to allow a 100-yard receiver through eight games, and they've gotten a look at just about every kind of pass catcher there is to deal with.
Against the Cowboys, Odell Beckham Jr. caught four passes for 73 yards. Chicago's Alshon Jeffery caught five passes for 70 yards. The Bengals' All-Pro standout A.J. Green caught four passes for 50 yards, and Green Bay's Jordy Nelson caught five passes for 68 yards. None of them recorded a touchdown.
And yet, Brown still might represent the most dangerous weapon the Cowboys will face all season. So far this year, he is fourth in the NFL in receptions with 55, sixth in receiving yards (677), and third in receiving touchdowns with six. All that and he has been frustrated with his level of production having faced numerous double and triple teams.
He's noticed the Cowboys' effectiveness against receivers and, like Wilcox, attributes it to solid foundational defense.
"I think those guys do a great job of keeping guys in front of them," Brown said during a conference call Wednesday with the Dallas media. "And getting at the quarterback, and mixing up their coverage schemes."
[embeddedad0]The Cowboys are expected to be without Morris Claiborne, who had been a key component to the their secondary's success. Rookie cornerback Anthony Brown will continue to step in and play primarily in nickel packages. As a rookie, he says that the fluidity with which the defense communicates removes a lot of the concern that might normally come with facing a dominant playmaker. He claims the Cowboys won't change anything in their preparation on Antonio Brown's accord.
"When you have 11 guys playing together you don't need to make a game plan for one person," Anthony Brown said.
Veteran cornerback Brandon Carr was a bit more wary of downplaying the threat that Brown represents. "He's a big challenge for us," Carr said. "We need to know where he is at all times."
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be playing his second game back following midseason knee surgery and if he is feeling healthier that only makes Brown more dangerous. Carr explained that Roethlisberger's ability to extend plays can make containing Brown almost impossible. "[Brown] has an uncanny way of getting open and catching the ball," Carr said. "The chemistry between him and his quarterback is something you don't see much throughout the league."
Fortunately, Carr and the Cowboys don't have to completely shut out Brown. They have given up catches and yards to big name receivers this season, but their bend-don't-break reputation has kept every receiver in check.
"A guy like that, you got to know he'll make his plays," Wilcox said. "It's more just concentrating on yourself and limiting your mistakes."
"He's in the NFL too," the rookie Brown said. "He gets paid too. If he makes a play don't get down on yourself. You got to compete with him. You got to go in knowing it's going to be a dog fight."
Antonio Brown will surely watch film on the Cowboys' defensive tendencies, but he's also kept an eye on the Dallas offense this season. "I would say their offense does a good job of scoring points and keeping [their defense] off the field, which could be a reason for their success."
As arguably the scariest playmaker in the league himself, he always keeps tabs on one particular player in the Dallas offense.
"Dez Bryant is a top five receiver in this league," Brown said. "He's got great breaking points and big and strong hands. He can run every route. He's an elite guy."
The Cowboys would love to see Bryant use his size and strength to return to elite status this week against the Steelers, but controlling Brown and his speed may end up being the key to the game.
For the rookie Anthony Brown's part, he maintains faith in their defensive schemes, but he doesn't fear the idea of getting matched up with Brown one-on-one.
"I'm trying to make a name for myself so going against the best would be a good way to make a name for myself."