Seemingly the only way to stop Odell Beckham Jr. is through the mental side of the game.
The New York Giants wide receiver can be baited into trash-talking battles with cornerbacks, breaking his concentration. Otherwise, he is as dangerous as any wide receiver in the NFL when fully engaged, as evidenced by his 65 receptions for 915 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
However, coach Mike Tomlin says his Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) won’t be playing mind games Sunday when they host the streaking Giants (9-3) at Heinz Field. The Giants have won six games in a row while the Steelers have posted back-to-back victories following a four-game losing streak.
“I think the way to get under his skin is minimizing his impact on the game,” Tomlin said. “We are going to spend our time in that area. If we can minimize his impact on the game, I imagine that will be frustrating to him and aid us. Spending time talking about anything else is not good, productive, or professional time for us.
“We have to do what we need to do schematically and technically to minimize one of the most dynamic players in football. That is a tall task.”
Making the task more difficult is that the Giants also have two other high-caliber wide receivers. Rookie Sterling Shepard has 44 receptions for 476 yards and five touchdowns and Victor Cruz has 27 catches for 462 yards and one TD after sitting out last season because a left calf injury that required surgery.
Led by veteran quarterback Eli Manning, the Giants are 12th in the NFL in passing yardage with an average of 256.6 a game.
“Eli has always done a good job of taking what defenses or schemes give him,” Tomlin said. “He has spread the ball around to a variety of people. You can just look at third downs for example.”
Beckham and Shepard each have 14 third-down receptions and Cruz has nine.
Thus, the Steelers’ secondary, which includes rookie starters in cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis, figures to be challenged much more than in recent wins over the Cleveland Browns and Cody Kessler and the Indianapolis Colts and Scott Tolzien.
Tomlin would not say which of his corners will cover Beckham. Ross Cockrell has drawn opponents’ top receivers throughout most of the season but Burns, the first-round draft pick from Miami, has impressed in three games since being moved into the starting lineup.
“Ross is Ross. Artie is Artie,” Tomlin said. “They’re different people. Ross brings a more cerebral approach to play. He’s a more veteran player, but he’s more cerebral in style. Artie is a combat-and-bump coverage guy. Both guys excel in line-of-scrimmage play, but I think more than anything if you’re contrasting them, it’s their approach to play.”
Tomlin said the Steelers are still sorting out which of the two best matches up against Beckham.
“It’s usually a myriad of variables and that is part of the discussion — the other people,” Tomlin said. “But body type, style of play and schematics are other elements of the discussion. That decision is never made in a vacuum.”
Burns knows that whichever receiver he draws will provide a difficult matchup, yet he looks forward to the opportunity.
“I’m very excited,” Burns said. “I’ve never really played against a trio like that before. I’m looking forward to playing against those guys.”