GREEN BAY – The scouting process for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ receiving corps started well before Damarious Randall walked into positional meetings earlier this week.
The Packers cornerback has been tracking Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant and Eli Rogers all season, whether it’s on his iPad or Madden.
“It’s probably one of the most talented receiver groups we’re going to see all season,” Randall said. “I play with them a lot on the video game. They’re kind of unstoppable out there.”
Needless to say, Randall and the Packers are fully aware of the challenge the Steelers and their eighth-ranked passing game will present Sunday night at Heinz Field.
Although Pittsburgh’s offense has run hot and cold, it’s coming off one of its best performances of the season in a 40-17 rout of the Tennessee Titans last Thursday. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns in the victory, connecting with Brown 10 times on 13 targets for 144 yards and three TDs.
It was the fifth time Brown has eclipsed 100 yards this season. The five-time Pro Bowler currently leads the NFL with 70 catches for 1,026 yards.
Containing Brown and Co. won’t be easy, but the Packers’ secondary looks to be as healthy as it’s been all year going into Sunday’s showdown. Safety Morgan Burnett (groin) and cornerback Kevin King (shoulder), who both sat out last Sunday’s 23-0 loss against Baltimore, were full participants in Thursday’s practice.
“I’ll definitely be out there,” said Burnett when asked about his availability for Sunday. “I’m excited. I’m ready to go. I had a good week of practice. So now just keep making those positive steps forward.”
Burnett is the linchpin of the defense, playing deep safety, boundary and slot cornerback, and linebacker in Green Bay’s “Nitro” nickel package. As much as the Packers like to maximize Burnett’s versatility, there is something to be said for maintaining continuity among the top three cornerbacks.
Injuries have been a factor at that position. With Quinten Rollins (Achilles) and Herb Waters (shoulder) already on injured reserve, King and Davon House have combined to miss five games this year.
The only cornerback to see action in all 10 games this year has been Randall, tying how many regular-season contests he played last year due to a lingering core-muscle injury.
Randall leads Green Bay’s cornerbacks with 471 defensive snaps this season (76.3 percent), playing a majority of those reps in the “star” slot position of the nickel and dime sub-packages.
While a season-ending injury to Sam Shields pushed Randall to the boundary last season, the Packers have remained committed to keeping the 25-year-old in the slot this year. He’s responded with a team-high three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), tied for ninth in the league.
“The closer he plays to the football, the more opportunities he has,” said Head Coach Mike McCarthy of Randall. “You know, he has that skill set, very instinctive, very intelligent, very aware, and really, him being at the star just gives us some continuity.
“To have the continuity of guys playing the same spots each and every week, it’s made us better in the secondary and it’s given him more opportunities to make plays on the ball.”
There is more to playing the star position than simply ball-hawking, though. It’s crucial for slot cornerbacks to also provide run support, a task Randall has relished in aiding Green Bay’s defensive front in holding opposing running backs to 2.3 yards per carry since the bye week.
Prior to the Week 8 bye, the 5-foot-11, 196-pound cornerback pulled down interceptions in three consecutive games. He’s now concentrated on getting a fourth pick to establish a new career high after intercepting three passes in each of his first two NFL seasons.
Randall says it doesn’t matter what position he’s playing, but the presence of King, House and backup Josh Hawkins on the boundary has freed him to make plays in the slot.
“I prefer to be wherever the ball is going,” Randall said. “I know there’s been a lot of close ones that haven’t been going my way lately but the ball will come my way soon.”
Smith-Schuster, the youngest player in the NFL at 20 years old, has rocketed onto the scene this season. He’s caught 33 passes for 568 yards with five touchdowns, though he is iffy to play Sunday due to a hamstring injury.
The Steelers still have plenty of options with Bryant, Rogers, and two former early-round picks behind them in Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter.
“We know we have to go until the whistle,” Randall said. “There is no ‘because the guy is done running his route, (we) stop.’ We have to keep on plastering to the coverage.”